On September 14, vocal virtuoso Bilal released Airtight’s Revenge cementing his return to the mainstream musical radar after a nine year absence. But don’t call it a comeback, Bilal has been here for years. He captivated the music scene in 2001 with his debut album 1st Born Second, which spawned singles “Love It” and “Soul Sista” and instantly placed him in neo-soul box. The album received limited production, but was touted as a critical hit. Although his debut did not garnish crossover success, Bilal acquired a vast following and high attendance of his live shows. Like Ella Fitzgerald, Bilal has the ability to use his voice as like an instrument (a trick he probably learned performing in jazz clubs in Philly) which elevates him to a pantheon of entertainers few artists ever reach. His lyrics convey the emotion and struggles of black people with pinpoint accuracy – women feel as if he is speaking directly to them, men believe he is speaking for them. Well respected amongst his peers, many of whom were categorized in the neo-soul box with him, Bilal has consistently contributed and been featured on numerous projects, remaining a fixture on the modern musical landscape despite only having one album of his own.
A hard lesson learned in the music business is that the business eclipses the music – the dollar is the bottom line, literally. Like most artists whose talent exceeds the box or genre record industry execs have labeled them under, Bilal has struggled to have his music heard. The neo-soul moniker that so conveniently classified the singers and groups that brought a resurgence of soul music in late ‘90s seemed more like a prison, trapping artists to fit a certain criteria as the music scene transitioned to the “Bling, Bling” more flash less substance era. Artists that fell under the genre appeared to get winnowed out or went deeper underground. The digitization of the music industry through downloads and ringtones only presented another conundrum. Bilal’s would be sophomore attempt, Love for Sale, was ultimately shelved by Interscope Records after being leaked online. But true talent can not be silenced, Bilal is constantly touring and in 2009 he signed with Plug Research.
On the surface the album’s title serves as a middle finger to the industry for the suppression of Love for Sale, Airtight is nickname Bilal received long ago, but Airtight’s Revenge also serves as a resurrection – a continuance of his musical journey. “My music has taken legs as far as the different hybrids that are coming out now,” he says while packing a suitcase, “I started out [and] a lot of my music was hip-hop and soul influenced, but now there are a whole lot of other influences such as electronic and punk rock. You could say it’s a rebirth, but I look at it like it’s evolved.” The cover art for Airtight’s Revenge is a dramatic representation of Bilal’s evolution since 1st Born Second. A recreation of the famous 1964 Ebony photo of Malcolm X standing at a window with rifle, Bilal, locks removed, exhibits the same take no prisoners approach with his musical career. “The message I’m sending with this cover is that I’m defending my art,” he says. “I’m really about doing what I do as pure as possible. Just like [Malcolm X] was defending his family, I’m defending my music.”
In a time where it seems like music is a mediocre regurgitation of someone that has come before, Airtight’s Revenge has come right on time. It is a tour de force collective of pensive, sophisticated lyricism and awe-inspiring musicianship. Defying, bending and shattering genres Airtight’s Revenge should be held as a beacon for artists to aspire to – good music that will last through the annals of time. You can listen to this audible collage in doses or take it in all at once, each time you discover something new. Airtight’s Revenge is sure to be a future classic, period and Bilal has exceeded his fans expectations and has probably picked up some new ones. As with Bilal’s first album, Airtight’s Revenge has received several successful reviews. Fans from YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have also expressed their love. Along with the adoration, have come comparisons to Prince, another genre-breaking artist. Bilal takes the talk of similarity in stride. “I don’t have a problem with being compared to Prince,” he responds Years ago I probably would have taken offense to that, like dang I’m trying to do my own thing. I do use my falsetto a lot and I’m a short dude, light-skinned, and I mix a lot of music like Prince does,” Bilal adds as we break into laughter. “I think he is legend and awesome voice to music in general.”
Because Airtight’s Revenge does not follow the formula artists generally use to garner success, there is a chance that this project will not receive the airplay it deserves. Categorizing music has worked for record labels and a radio station for decades, rocking the boat seems to be an asinine, non-profitable notion. But labels do not exist for a person who “lives life as freely as he can,” and those who will most benefit from Airtight’s Revenge are those who approach music with the same attitude. “I’ve been arguing about name calling since I first came out. When I first came out, cats were calling what I did neo-soul and I was like I this has been going since we as black people have been doing music,” Bilal says. “What I think is going on is there is a lot of monopolizing. Black music isn’t really looked at as art anymore,” he continues, “it’s kinda looked at as a vehicle to make money. Everybody in America right now is kinda geared towards making money. It’s terrible to put names on art, market it and profit from it. For what I do, I don’t put names on it. I mix so many different concepts and styles that it really is genre-less.”
After we finished speaking Bilal headed to the airport for a performance in Paris. On September 15 he embarked on his 2010 North American tour. He played two dates in New York, a show at B.B. Kings on the 18th and an acoustic set in Brooklyn on the 20th. The rest of the tour he will be on the west coast playing venues in Portland, Seattle, Sacramento, Oakland, Fullerton, and Los Angeles. When I first sat down to talk with Bilal I thought of the famous quote from Fela Kuti, “Music is the weapon.” But the more I listen to Airtight’s Revenge the more I am reminded of a line from “My Way” (written by Paul Anka and made famous by Frank Sinatra) that says, “The record shows I took the blows and did it my way.” Bilal is an artist that has taken the licks and continues to move forward and captain his musical destiny. Airtight’s Revenge serves as irrefutable proof of the beauty that can be generated when creativity is undefined.
Photos: Topshelf Jr./Danny Williams