Bilal, Airtight’s Revenge
Neo-soul — if you make room for elements of jazz, funk and psychedelic rock
It's been nine years since the release of Philadelphia-based Bilal Sayeed Oliver's acclaimed debut 1st Born Second, on which he worked with Dr. Dre and members of The Roots. He hasn't been idle in the time since. Despite his dismay when 2006's Love For Sale was shelved by Interscope after an internet leak, and subsequent contractual wrangles, he's kept his profile afloat on collaborations with Erykah Badu, Common and Jay-Z. If anything, the lack of an official follow-up has only whet the appetite of clued-up admirers.
Airtight's Revenge — "Airtight" being his nickname among friends — does not disappoint. Experimental yet energizing, it qualifies as neo-soul, but only if you make room for elements of jazz, funk and even psychedelic rock. Musically, Bilal has advanced astonishingly — the soundscapes here blend organic and digital, resulting in fresh, fascinating textures. Through it all, his angelic voice soars and swoops. It wouldn't be too fanciful to suggest he's not just up there with Maxwell and D'Angelo, he's the spiritual heir of Marvin and Stevie.
"Cake And Eat It Too" lures with a G-funk groove which Bilal redirects into more inventive territory; "Restart" begins similarly retro but bursts into vocal call-and-response and shimmering, trance-like chords. "All Matter" — the instant stand-out — glides from a repeated guitar lick into a mighty chorus, Bilal hitting a sublime falsetto. "Little One" is a simpler ballad (in praise of his children), but things are never allowed to settle into a safety zone, as "Robots" ("go ask the President!") offers socio-political questions and the jerky rhythms of "The Dollar" verge on drum'n'bass. "Who Are You?" — as lithe and untethered as Marvin amid "What's Going On?"— floats into free-association warbling which finds Bilal stating: "I'm a lover, fighter, saint, sinner…basically I'm just a human being…I'm a Buddhist, Egyptian, Jewish vegan, Muslim, Christian, Hindu magician…" It's the Everyman in Bilal which makes even his loftiest Badu-like musings relatable, and it's his feline voice and fluid musicianship which make Airtight's Revenge the kind of graceful yet gutsy album we wish Prince still made.