First Impressions: Bilal's 'Revenge' Is A Dish Best Served Experimental

Monday, September 13, 2010

It's all about layers and texture. Not in the fashion sense. Layers and texture of the vocals and musical sound structure. One who listens, engages or just catches a spare note of Bilal knows that layers and textures are what drive his overall artistry. His voice dips and dives across registers, he rarely sounds the same throughout one, one whole phrase. The music that backs up his jumpin' jack flash spout can begin as a caressing ballad and then end up by song's end as a raging rock stomp. Point blank, you are never ever bored with Bilal. This is one thing that made me a fan in the first place. Thanks to a lot of Ambien sleep pills called male singers now a days, Bilal is the equalizer of today's soul brothas, he knows how to switch it up every single time, which is why he should be let out of his canon much more than he often is. Which brings us to why Airtight's Revenge, the long-awaited third album by the Philly cultivated crooner showcases what tricks he still has under his sleeve and why this is clearly just the start. 

As a new fan of Bilal, I came into his sphere simply through his 2001 debut, 1st Born Second with single, "Soul Sista" leading the way. Later on, the shelved and unreleased Love For Sale came into the fold. It wowed me over with it's experimental festoon of sounds that arguably leapfrogged over 1st Born Second. Since Love For Sale was shelved, and Bilal has mainly been "that guy" as a guest star and writer on tracks by the likes of Erykah Badu, Sy Smith, Zap Mama, the Clipse and Common, Airtight's Revenge is sort of the product of Bilal's moments of being in the backdrop. He is clearly a soda can that kept getting shaken, now the fizz runneth over.  

Revenge is a prism of sounds, all sort of ideas and genres spray out and at times they sort of dilute what Bilal brings to the vocal table because they are so potent and almost overpower him. Yet, the emotions and tales that are woven in the tracks through that Bilal's voice is vivid and can be felt right off the bat. Flat out, Revenge is complex, even a wee bit exhausting in how much is actually going on within its mold. The production of Steve McKie, 88 Keys and Nottz guide the album into that mosaic territory. Fans can find an appreciation for what Bilal has saved up for so long while newcomers like myself will be in awe due to it being a out of bounds journey of variance.

An ode to a demanding woman, "Cake & Eat It Too" wobbles us in with a tipsy synth chord, it's almost unsure of itself, drunk even, with Bilal's bouncing from being operatic then to a deep growl. It's a complete contrast to the assured clashes of cymbals and percussion tartness of "Restart", the first official single. Bilal's gives an eternal question of love on personal favorite, the skittish, "All Matter". Another favorite is the slip n' slide of "Move On", which is somehow doesn't know if it wants to be a rock charge or a soft soul number.

Move On

The vulnerable side of Bilal shines best when he plays storyteller, as heard in the haunting and heavy narrative "Flying" about a young girl who gets swirled into a life of drugs and prostitution. Not your typical easy-to-digest fare simply on subject matter alone, but it does leave a memory mark with Bilal's vocal acrobatics as he sounds almost like five different people. Bilal returns to this state, more subtle on "Little Ones", a delicate dedication to his young sons.

When Bilal really let's loose, songs like the crazy-good static jumble of jazz, bep-bop, alternative and funk, "Levels" and "Robots" in it's guitar n' bass mechanics are mind-boggling and really show him at his overtly unique self. Especially, "Levels", which may sound better live, but really rides that crest of an experimental funk-a-thon grandly, it's even the most ambitious song on here. 


Ambitious, vulnerable and experimental, Bilal never really gets to the core of all those emotions presented, but that's really okay, in a weird way that's what makes Revenge so workable. It's difficult to process with no two songs sounding alike and the fluttering way Bilal zip-e-do-dah's around genres, but you still get a sense that he is sonically in sync about all this, that you eagerly want to hear every nook and cranny presented hoping to hear more.

The Boogie Down Productions/Malcolm X cover art homage hints at what Bilal feels about coming back after a nine year hiatus. He's peeking through the curtain, holding back the mic, unsure of what comes before him, and staking out his audience in order to attack forcibly. Yet, there is more too it than that and even Bilal's impeccable voice skills. With Airtight's Revenge there are complex emotions at stake here, and it Bilal's evolving state as an artist and his ability to cover all kinds of grounds that gets the real showcase here.

Rating: 9.3/10
Release Date: September 14, 2010


1 comment:

  1. great review love.

    i thought i was the only one who preferred, "levels", live.


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