"WHY CAN'T THINGS turn out like you want it?" Bilal ponders on "Think it Over," a song from Airtight's Revenge, released last month. It's a loss song for the Coretta that got away. Not that Bilal—a Philadelphia-bred vocal virtuoso—portrays himself as Martin Luther King Jr., just as someone who knows a little about dreams. Particularly, in Langston Hughes' parlance, dreams deferred, crusted and sugared over, like Bilal's candied voice on Airtight's Revenge.
A conservatory-trained wonder who embedded himself in his hometown jazz and hiphop scene as a teen, there are few sounds that elude Bilal, but he leans toward the spectacular, the cool, the monstrous. On "Think it Over," he's Werther's Original simple and earnest, but not without a little roof-of-the-mouth scraping edge.
"What happened to me on this record was life," Bilal explains. With his heavily heralded 2001 debut, 1st Born Second, the then-21-year-old was to bear the neo-soul movement's torch as ignited by D'Angelo and Erykah Badu in the mid-'90s. The poignantly handsome singer, who had done time as a background vocalist for both, secured guest spots from Common and Mos Def as well as production from Dr. Dre and the late J Dilla. Still, with the exception of the slinky single "Soul Sista," the public didn't bite. Four years later when Bilal's intended sophomore offering, Love for Sale, was leaked and heavily bootlegged, his label Interscope, who had found the album "too strange and dark," saw an out, dropping Bilal and keeping his masters.
"It's almost like when 50 Cent got shot in the face and he started rhyming different. Life happened," says Bilal. "So in life, I guess, a certain pain, a certain fermentation, the same thing that happens to some good wine, set in." One senses it's not just the shelving of Love for Sale, an innovative soul masterwork that fermented his talent, and by his own estimation matured his outlook. In occasional concerts on the Eastern Seaboard, the delirium his hyper-expressive Prince—and Rolling Stones—reminiscent performances engendered was cut by his ostensible unhappiness and occasional erratic behavior. He didn't look like a man who enjoyed being on stage despite his deftness at it. Bilal laughs heartily at that observation, conceding only that now he leaves his personal demons off of the stage or channels them into his music.
Despite his label drama, Bilal's had opportunities to exorcise. Over the past decade he's been featured on the records of a host of soul and jazz peers and hiphop admirers from Terence Blanchard to Scarface. Airtight's Revenge takes that intensity of expression and matches it with his singular worldview. He confesses to being "on this journey to find my own voice" and it seems to lie not only in humanistic reportage on the corner's insolent and frail denizens ("The Dollar"), materialism and hypocrisy ("Robots"), and love and lust's bewilderments ("Cake & Eat it Too"), but in his ability to meld traditions of art and popular, sacred, and protest music. His ability to, as he says, "sing all the notes." This nails