A Dish Best Served Eclectic…
When one is blessed with a vocal instrument of this magnitude, that yearns to be released into the world “By Any Means Necessary” (hence the new LP’s cover / Malcolm X homage), it cannot be contained within the limiting confines of a traditional music thesis.
No, talent of this measure needs room to expand, breathe even. It craves vast expanses of unhindered audio to romp around in, intentionally stepping on the toes of those not smart enough to move when it was first spotted heading in their general direction. A voice of this kind can and will burn the insignificant with its radiance like a bad little kid with a magnifying glass, a blazing sun at it’s back, an ant hill in front and nothing more constructive to do.
Airtight’s Revenge will be a difficult digestion process for the delicate constitution of anyone whose primary audio diet consists of those “Bad for Your Musical Heart” low-density lipoproteins that Pop Radio & Mainstream Video dish out on the daily. Over time, that stuff will clog up your arteries and it will be much harder to reverse the inevitable heart attack from over indulging in all that grease-laden junk music. So when a project like this comes around, it can be such a shock to the system, that more often than not, the body will reject it. I’ll even go as far as to say that I’m positive this disc has claimed some auditory lives. Many have surely fallen victim already and those that have yet to listen will most certainly be aurally slain on the spot. I imagine, that if their musical sensibilities were akin to the metronome like beating of an electrocardiogram, then they flatlined before Mr. Oliver even got through the opening stanzas of
Cake & Eat It Too
Just the off kilter baseline alone is enough to make weaker hearts (and minds) stutter lifeliquid. Historically, Bilal has never really catered to what the mainstream has really wanted him to portray in his career. Which of course is not necessarily a bad thing. Suffice it to say, for the most part, Bilal is that rare type of artist with talents that far exceed the norm. Unfortunately, the majority of music listeners within the demographic that Major labels are vying to capture, are not apt to listen to it enough to translate those ears into $. There are numerous artists that create incredible music and albums, never once cracking the Top 40, let alone making regular rotation on a video channel that actually still plays videos.
In fact, I’ve spoken with a number of people whose opinions on music I respect, that have expressed to me that they are not enjoying this LP anywhere near as much as his previous work and were expecting something more commercial to bring Bilal back to terrestrial radio for the masses to enjoy in-between Trey Songz & Rihanna. I agree that those are nice thoughts to have. In all honesty, who wouldn’t want to see an artist of this caliber regain that position after such a lengthy pause? But in rebuttal, I pose to you a simple question: “Does an artist create music to sell units or to touch the listener?”
It is, as I’ve often stated, a fine balance. To attempt to place one foot firmly in the sphere of wanting to support your lifestyle with your talent and yet the other in the area of not compromising your artistic integrity is in a single word…daunting.
Take his first stellar LP “1st Born Second” from 2000. It garnered enough steam to generate a few singles that charted and gained visual treatment.
It was the groundbreaking for his unique range and the first playground for he and his Soulquarian affiliates to introduce the rest of the world to his classically trained vocal mastery. The album was critically acclaimed, had quite a polished vibe to it and stays in the CD changer for many a knowledgeable audiophile. But as any great LP is warrant to have, there are still people who I run into that have never heard it or any Bilal for that matter all because the LP didn’t contain any majorly commercial or mainstream tracks.
Any run of the mill Bilal fan, will probably tell you that either “Fast Lane” or “Soul Sista” are their favorite songs from that disc. Which would fit seeing as those two received the most airplay and made it into the regular rotation for most Radio & Video outlets. More avid listeners may even cite “Sometimes” as one of their favorite tracks. Those are the ones that actually purchased a copy. I enjoy the entire album and have two copies, one for the house and one for the car but when listening to either, I save my repeat button for
I make this differentiation for that LP to make the point that Bilal did give us all a glimpse into the direction he was headed for the future of his sound in the oft overlooked or skipped over track
I have to admit that I’ve only listened to it in its entirety twice. Once while writing these very lines and another time when I was in a Dank & Milwaukee’s Best Ice induced stupor, too zooted to reach for the remote and change the song. In my haze, the song seemed to be a meandering, pointless, overly deep track with cryptic lyrics that crescendo into a cacophony of loud screams, profane language, hard edge guitar, off kilter piano and oddly bent notes.
But upon closer, more sober examination of the track name and the explicit ending of the song, it seems that something or someone is violently killing or has killed someone else. Could it be a metaphor of some sort? The Second Child killing off the 1st born? In the grand scheme of attempting to bring about change, for what you feel is in pursuit of betterment of your person, craft, love, etc., don’t you think that the “old you” would put up a violent and loud, kicking and screaming fight?
But in the end, the 2nd chile prevails, is nurtured and prospers, growing into the Bilal we would have received in 2006 on his second album “Love For Sale“. Which unfortunately, did not get to be mass-produced, shipped and be physically shelved inside of a brick and mortar retailer as it “leaked” online prematurely, causing the label to figuratively and moronically, shelve the project citing lack of substantial monetary return due to the bootlegging as part of their reasoning.
That was four years before album leaks became widespread, part of the norm and for some labels even part of their business practice to create buzz for a new disc or artist. Despite what happened behind the scenes and online, it did not actually cause the death of that particular album. In fact, it defied the labels way off the mark predictions as he has been touring and performing those very songs to packed audiences across the states and overseas. The songs on it were quite progressive, far more advanced in relation to 1st Born. Bilal allowed the 2nd Child to take control and take listeners into a new realm. The 2nd Child was permitted to take songs like
All 4 Love
and tweak small infinitesimal things like odd musical arrangements and place them in uncomfortable places within the melody. Allowed to explore new sounds, find different ways to bend notes like Beckham, stray into the anti-thesis of a love ballad
and take awkward lyric phrasing and blend it with subtlety, creating an intense metaphysical experience
White Turns To Gray
We now come to Bilal’s recent release on his new label Plug Research, home to such other groundbreaking, progressive artists as Quadron & Flying Lotus. When you do the math on how long it’s been since his last disc, it will show that it’s been almost a decade since an official release. He has, to his credit, remained relevant by touring and unexpectedly popping up on tracks like Erykah Badu’s “Jump Up In The Air & Stay There“, a cover of Radiohead’s “High & Dry” & Common’s “Play Your Cards Right” amongst a host of others.
So with a tad of the history now reviewed, it should be easier to see why this LP sounds the way it does. It isn’t commercial by any means, nor is it totally inaccessible. Granted, tracks like “Restart” which will more than likely come to mind whenever I get into a heated, loudly vocal discussion with Wifey,
which it seems was recorded before the more jazzy version found on Robert Glasper‘s “Double Booked” LP and “Little One“, written by Mr. Oliver for his two children that both have medical issues that I’m sure they claim victory over daily. Those songs will be easier for casual listeners to accept as they address topics and subjects that are more recognizable and the production sound scape isn’t too far in left field from center.
On the other hand, the lion’s share of the rest of the LP is going to be just out of reach for those that want their music selection to only make them head nod/booty shake/trunk rattle and not give them any commentary of a broader scope or use too layered of an audio backdrop to follow along with. If you don’t normally subscribe to the aforementioned crowd or you can expertly navigate between both worlds, tracks like “Robots” which takes a hard look at whether you subscribe to Free thought or as Ms. Badu schooled us earlier this year, are you caught up in robotic Group Think will definitely appeal. Within the notes of
Who Are You
he discusses the need for people to understand their identity, “The Dollar” which seems to be very auto-biographical of what the music industry has put him through and my favorite, the unintentionally hilarious
will not disappoint, if you truly give them a chance to sink in. Why people would expect someone with a history of progression to not arrive back on the scene after a nine-year hiatus with a progressive LP, is quite a mystery to yet be solved. I take issue with that type of thinking, yet I cannot begrudge anyone their opinion. Ah well. Nothing more I can do with that, other than to quote Jilly from Philly, “You know what they say…Everything ain’t for everybody.”
In summary, Airtight’s Revenge is infinitely better than I imagined it to be and it should be a great listen with high potential for numerous replays. It is not, nor is it attempting to be a clone of any of his past work, though there are some minuscule elements of past tracks present within a few of these songs. New fans, as well as staunch Bilal followers, shouldn’t have too many issues with anything on this playlist, though I would suggest actually carving out time to listen to it entirely at least once to see that this album comes from a place within Bilal that has been nine years in the making.
IMHO, Bilal has created a body of work that has transcended the normal paint-by-numbers formula and those with “Mainstream Only Ears” will be hard pressed to easily follow along with it. It may very well be easier for them to tightly grasp smoke rings or completely fill a basketball hoop with water first.
Bilal is definitely authoring a new chapter in an entirely new book of his musical life. It is unfortunate however that not everyone that listens will be able to understand the language being written on the pages.
You can support Bilal @ several different retailers such as Plug Research & Amazon but I suggest using the Steve Jobs conglomerate simply for the exclusive iTunes Bonus track there. Oh and just to sweeten the pot for you, here are some random links for more FREE. 99 Bilal goodness that you should have and the very recent video for his cover of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love” as well.
Download: Free Bilal Tracks.zip
Bilal – “Free”
Bilal – “Levels” [Live Version]
The Miguel Atwood-Ferguson Ensemble – “Someday We’ll All Be Free” [Donny Hathaway Cover]
Bilal – “Is This Love” [Bob Marley Cover]: Video Link