Bilal - Airtight's Revenge (2010)

Bilal
Bilal_Airtight_s_Revenge.jpg
Click on CD cover
to listen or purchase

Bilal is a serious artist engaged in serious work. For that rare league of artists whose work has been hailed as "genius," every new birth thereafter is held to ever increasing scrutiny and nearly unreachable expectations. When an artist comes out the gate with a debut as seminal as 2001's First Born Second, it's difficult to see how that artist can continue to artistically climb ever higher, to keep the audience's love affair alive when so many before have not. But, climb Bilal did with his second, officially unreleased set, Love For Sale (which anyone with an IP address can find online), a collection of funk, rock, and innovative, sometimes deconstructed soul-one that fans adore, but his label failed to believe in, dropping Bilal and shelving the project after a convenient vinyl leak.

Bilal is a serious artist engaged in serious work. For that rare league of artists whose work has been hailed as "genius," every new birth thereafter is held to ever increasing scrutiny and nearly unreachable expectations. When an artist comes out the gate with a debut as seminal as 2001's First Born Second, it's difficult to see how that artist can continue to artistically climb ever higher, to keep the audience's love affair alive when so many before have not. But, climb Bilal did with his second, officially unreleased set, Love For Sale (which anyone with an IP address can find online), a collection of funk, rock, and innovative, sometimes deconstructed soul-one that fans adore, but his label failed to believe in, dropping Bilal and shelving the project after a convenient vinyl leak. The tour de force cult classic showcased Bilal's freaky side and phenomenal range in a way that First Born Second only hinted at. It also revealed an emerging penchant for experimentalism, and a stronger disregard for the expected. What was emergent before is in full bloomon his third set, Airtight's Revenge, in its total avoidance of the anticipated, even more philosophical lyricism, and a growing abdication of soul...or, is it a further expansion of what classifies as soul music?

First Born Second had its explorations, but largely stayed in the vein of that era's neo-soul and hip hop fusion that dominated after Voodoo, Mama's Gun, and The MisEducation of Lauryn Hill. Departing, Love for Sale was less married to its antecedent's hip hop elements and began displaying Bilal's love affair with progressive jazz and electric rock. With four years of heavy touring and further musical study into these outlier genres of blues and soul, Airtight's Revenge continues where Love For Sale left off, only plunging deeper into these forward-thinking depths, and drifting further away from classic soul.

Musically, with the exception of the chest-thumping sounds of "Cake and Eat It Too," Airtight's Revenge is not an album where rhythm dominates; neither do beats, nor Bilal's usual intricate doo wop harmonies that have been a signature on previous recordings-mood and atmosphere rule. Brass, strings, and guitar are given greater deference in these compositions. As with "The Dollar," the musicians are also allowed to function and perform their instruments in ways that are not done with the usual chord progressions prominent in traditional R&B. Though it has a relationship with soul classics like The Whispers' "Olivia (Lost & Turned Out)," the dark tale of a hardened girl of the streets could easily serve as an expository Broadway soliloquy from Cy Coleman's The Life. There is a driving pulse on the chill-out "Levels" that could easily serve as the noirish score for narcissistic ‘80s flicks like Less Than Zero or Risky Business, but even here atmosphere dominates, submerging all other elements to the sweep of the groove. The roomy ballad ala Prince Rogers Nelson, "Little One," is probably the most memorable of the set and also the one that best characterizes the entire project-blue, spare, mature, thoughtful, intelligent, and far removed from the wild child Bilal of lore.

Bilal's mood only lightens and develops more traditional rhythmic and pop song structures for his rock outings, "Move On" and the lead single "Restart." It's on these cuts that one realizes that the funk in Bilal's music isn't in the instrumentation or arrangements, but embedded in the timbre of his voice and the bend of his phrasing. Bilal's voice makes every genre of music funky, or at least funk's cousin. It's the funk of Bilal's voice that distinguishes him from the equally masterful Terence Trent Darby, another "genius" whose own truth seeking journey in genre-free music earned him a loyal cult following even as the commercial audience moved on when the music drifted away from the limiting boxes of public taste.

Comparisons can definitely be made in Bilal and TTD's lyricism, which on Airtight's Revenge is esoteric, introspective, philosophical and more liberal in its musings, particularly on the existential "Who Are You." However, TTD never really stopped boasting of his sexuality or infusing sexual energy into his love ballads, whereas Bilal, a husband and father of two, has seemed to mellow in this regard. Instead, Bilal chooses to croon themes of loss and the challenges of retaining love and relationships as he does on the Eastern "Think It Over," the propulsive "Cake and Eat It Too," and even on the previously mentioned rock cuts. Here too, Bilal the artist departs from funksters like Rick James, to whom he's often compared. Bilal has artistically matured into a more focused, grown man, and, admirably, he's not afraid to reflect and share his different carriage in the walk of his music.  

Accordingly, Airtight's Revenge is a beautiful, evolved and resoundingly quiet work. It will disappoint some, and may cause others who are looking for a freakier Bilal to scratch their heads in bewilderment over the loss of his madness. It is not a traditional soul or a neo-soul album, nor is it really funk, though funk is present. If soul has a jazz side other than the smooth, Bilal's latest child could rest there for a time. I doubt that Bilal's child will rest for long; this is an artist whose children grow up in unexpected ways. Hopefully, some will keep watch as the toddler becomes a preteen and the artist more a man. Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 
Video of the Month - Kea Michaels - "I Love You"
Album of the Month - Will Downing - The Promise
Featured Album - Candace Bellamy - Soul for the Season
Choice Cut - Kenya - "Favorite Things"

Leave a comment!