Bilal is not new. He's not an artist finding his voice, looking for his sound, or breaking into music with reckless abandon, begging you to like him. Bilal is a professional. He is a craftsman who knows exactly what you didn't know you needed to hear. Steve Mckie and the rest of the production crew prove to be some of the most underrated in music. What you get is something that is smart, soulful, sometimes haunting, but always sincere. What you get is music made for music's sake and ultimately everyone benefits.
A love Surreal is Bilal's latest album, after a strong comeback with Airtight's Revenge in 2010, garnering a Grammy nomination for his song, Little One, about autism and dedicated to his son. This coming after initial success in 2001 with 1st Born Second, a virtual 10 year commercial exile that included a leaked/shelved album, Love for Sale, in 2006 that still attracted critical acclaim, and guest appearances on various hip-hop and jazz tracks.
Two allusions, one to Dali, the other to Coltrane, and we slip into the album bookended with an intro and outro--arresting musical arrangements you probably won't skip. Ever. There's something you have to be ready to do, and that's swing. Your head bobs, you think it's just a driving bass line--some grit and depth, but pay attention and you'll realize, you're swinging.
There's a little more you need to know: Bilal is from Philly, studied music at the New School in New York City, is dogged by rumors of an ability to sing in seven languages, and possesses a rare voice that baffles and inspires. Take the artistic bravery of Prince, the vocal dexterity of Thom Yorke, combine it with the candor of Curtis Mayfield and intelligence of Stevie Wonder. Throw in the dissonant sensibilities of Thelonious Monk, and a precision unparalleled, and you get Bilal.
If anything, buy the record just to hear what the human voice can do. After inverting the conventions of jazz, funk blues, hip-hop and post-rock throughout the album, "Never Be the Same", fulfills the promise of the surreal, as Bilal bends and stacks the vocals into something ethereal. He carries this into the collaboration with Robert Glasper, "Butterfly", another productive meeting of friends. Here, Bilal cuts the tops off notes, and splays them open for a vulnerability that is muted but poignant, an ethos that informs the entire project.
Bilal has been working. You should be listening.