It’s the age-old question, how do you top a legendary debut album? When 1st Born Second was released in 2001, it was an instant classic. Songs like, “Soul Sista,” and “Love It,” put Black love in a spotlight. The album also featured the introspective, “Sometimes,” which asked soul-searching questions that everyone in the generation could understand, and in fact, it remains Bilal’s signature song.
A member of the memorable soul collective, The Soulquarians, whom he states would have made an “amazing” album if they had ever recorded one together, Bilal has long been viewed as an intergral part of the neo-soul sound/movement. A label that most of the artists who are relegated to that category reject. However, it is undisputed that the music of the early 2000’s featured a feel unlike any time since and that experience was captured in the music of Erykah Badu, India. Arie, The Roots, and Common. The former neo-soul sound has morphed back into what it always was Black music, and idea that sits well with Bilal.
“The genre never really existed for me. I never really put myself in a box. I came out at a time where a lot of people were using a lot of retro instruments and stuff like that,” he states, “But I never looked at as ‘neo-soul,’ I always thought it was a hybrid of hip-hop. The people that I worked with on my first album from The Roots, to Dr. Dre were hip-hop. I didn’t see it then as neo-soul.”
After his debut, emerging file-sharing technology would soon force the crooner into a career dilemma that would last nearly a decade. His sophmore debut, Love for Sale, was shelved by Interscope after the highly-anticipated follow up leaked online and fans would go NINE years before he released another studio album, 2010’s Airtight’s Revenge.
The album featured his signature sound, heavy synth rhythms and insightful songwriting. “Little One,” a thought-provoking song about his eldest son, who is autistic, was nominated for a Grammy. Written with the idea of an audible film or short story, the album is full of dark themes about self-reflection. Some from his life, some from his imagination. Either way, the album, which was well-received by critics but not as much by fans. However, it fueled his newest recording, A Love Surreal. “I learn from each project,” Bilal states, “Every time I make a record, I am taking notes for the next record. This album took me the shortest time to make; honestly, it was like it just flowed.” And flow it does.
From the intro, A Love Surreal transplants the listener into a world where nothing exists but love. It isn’t all perfect love. Released just over a month ago, the new album features thoughts on new love, long-distance love, and lost love. “The inspiration behind the record is art. Visual art. I wanted to make a world that you could lose yourself inside of,” Bilal to AllHipHop.com in an exclusive interview, “I try to make the music, when we record it, so that when we actually play it live; it will sound better.” Bilal has been touring the US in support of the album, with an incredible one-hour set featuring him, his band, and his many hits.
Despite only being on his third album, Bilal has a career that has spanned almost fifteen years and his imprint is all over the current sound of R&B. His inspiration is evident in younger artists like Frank Ocean and Miguel, whose spacey-sounding love songs have defined the sound in recent years. A fact that Bilal barely acknowledges, “I like what Miguel is doing. I like what Frank is doing. I think that the brothers are doing a good job.” He adds, “But, I couldn’t really give you a statement on the state of soul music. I’m in my own little bubble, my own little world. I think we’re in a really space right now, with all the TV shows, that everybody is a judge of music. What’s great, what’s dope. I kind of just stay in my own little world and make sure my s**t is dope.”
Bilal has always made dope music from his own recordings, to his most recent collaborations with the Grammy-winning Robert Glasper Experiment, to his many collaborations with hip-hop artists. He credits his work-ethic and his love for hip-hop,”What I’m doing now I see it as a hybrid. But, that’s pretty much what hip-hop does, it takes other styles of music and creates a sound. That’s my approach to music. Nowadays, my music has taken a sort of jazz tone, I guess that’s because I’ve aged. I don’t really put what I do in a box by giving it a name.”
Visit www.BilalMusic.com for tour dates and more information and follow him on Twitter @Bilal.