2001 saw the release of Bilal's seminal album '1st Born Second' via the Interscope imprint, which managed to showcase in a very effective way the broad musical range of a newly arrived talent, clearly unwilling to limit his musical output to the tired cliches so often to be found in modern R&B and soul (or what is now often termed 'Urban Music'). Having produced one of the most interesting albums of the period Bilal then appeared to disappear, occasionally to surface in a guest role on other artist's recordings - most particularly with Common and Jill Scott, and notably on the Barely Breaking Even (BBE) release 'Exit Music' featuring covers of Radiohead songs (Bilal featured with Pete Kuzma on 'High & Dry'). When his follow up album 'Love For Sale' was leaked on to the internet, it was apparently decided that the album would not receive an official release - and so this third album is released via an independent label Plug Research.
In many respects the album follows and further extends the pattern established by '1st Born Second', with the music clearly referencing various points of the musical compass. This album is not a tired beat driven affair, as the opening track 'Cake & Eat It Too' might initially suggest. The slightly plodding rhythm emerges out of a sonic crashing effect beloved of laptop musical producers, but slowly the ear is drawn to the lyric and the style in which it is being delivered - with the return of Bilal's characteristic falsetto voice. 'Restart' announces an unashamed rock influence, and features a particular nod vocally to Prince, but in a way that might work within a Pop orientated environment. 'All Matter' continues the variety, with an opening descending vocal that George Michael would kill for, and a later chorus line that David McCalmont would be pleased to sing and caress. 'Flying' is part Prince (stylistically as 'Sign Of The Times') but also somehow manages to hint at an almost Bowiesque world weariness and attendant cynicism. 'Levels' is almost baroque in style, with a hovering pained vocal, that warrants repeated listening to uncover the musical textures at work.
By contrast 'Little One' starts as a traditional rock influenced groover, which again clearly references Prince. 'Move On' is a song of lost love, featuring a short break from Led Zepplin ('When The Levee Breaks'), with typically quirky vocal flourishes, whilst 'Robots' is one of the few tracks here that could possibly have featured on '1st Born Second', but listen to the guitar in the closing moments where a melody appears sounding oddly like that found on the Giogio Moroder produced 'Flashdance' (as Bilal repeats the refrain 'What are you gonna do?'). 'Dollar' features social commentary allied to a multi-layered production featuring diverse musical elements that almost threaten to break through to disrupt the vocal, and 'Who Are You' is a beguiling yet wry observation on meaning and identity that has an almost magnetic aural quality, and listen for the beautiful reggae coda (a style previously visited more fully with 'Home'). The album concludes with 'Think It Over', a song of hope and possible reconcilliation.
So. Do you buy?
Whilst '1st Born Second' still fell recognisably within R&B and Soul (although it was often accorded the short lived title 'Neo-Soul'), 'Airtight's Revenge' is an altogether different beast, that eschews the stylistic trappings that have so disabled what is called 'Urban Music'. Whilst earlier songs such as 'You Are', 'Soul Sista' and 'All That I Am' had an immediately 'listenable' quality , this album is less concentrated and may well require repeated listening to in order to uncover the real charm that is undoutedly there to find. It is steadfastly not of the current trend in mainstream black music, and one wonders if Bilal would now even acknowledge that term as being too limiting. Perhaps this apparent defiance has been made possible by the fact of this album not being released on a major label, and the photograph may be a knowing reference to a similar image of an armed Malcolm X in 1964 by Ebony Magazine - the question is who is Bilal possibly looking for - disgruntled and confused fans?
There is no doubting the considerable talent that Bilal Oliver possesses, and it is refreshing to see an artist so obviously willing to experiment, whilst explicitly referencing key musical influences, in a manner that never descends to crass pastiche or parody. Certainly more challenging than '1st Born Second', and not likely to please everybody, this is an album that rewards and frustrates in equal measure. It may not achieve considerable commercial success but, like Maxwell's 'Black Summer's Night', it offers a welcome respite from stereotyped posturing and musical and lyrical superficiality.
2010 has proved to be a great year for music. Bilal's album sits up their with the likes of Maxwell,Raheem Davaughn, Janelle Monae, Alloe Blacc, The Roots and John Legend which have all tried to so things a bit jazzier,traditional and a bit differant?I appreciate this is a contradiction in terms but check out the albums production and instruumentations and you will kind of get it. Probably (and incorrectly) this album will be filed under RnB but this album pushes the boundaries of music and is hard to categorise.I would class this as a grower that needs a few plays to start to get the groove going on. Strangely I picked this up at a bargain price which I thought might be a Bilal marketing/publicity startegy to discourage illegal downloading which was a huge problem with his classy second album which was not even released.Certainly I am not complaining! As mentioned some tracks like Flying,Levels,Little One and Robots, which are the centre of the album, take a while to get into but immediate and brilliant are the tracks 'All Matter','Who Are You' with the semi-dub reggae second half which for me is the killer and also solo commercial track which is a good stab at afro-american reggae (for a change).'Think It Over 'reminds me of the genious and criminally ignored music made by Lewis Taylor a few years ago.And here in lies the probable problem with this album.Limited commercial,pubescent RnB/pop to lure the radio stations means this album might only be heard by people who have given up on radio and seek out cerebral and mature music made by proper and talented musicians.Try before you buy and applaude this effort,this album might get ignored and quickly fade into the bargain section which would be a great shame.
This album is criminally low-priced. I knew of Bilal from a Gilles Peterson live studio album (BBC sessions). On hearing this album (give it 2 or 3 listens before you make judgement) I'd gladly buy anything Bilal puts out there. Amazing voice. Reminds me of Prince on track 4. Track 3 is worth paying alot of money for. Each track is of a different genre and worth the cover price. The man loves music - that is clear. £1.99?! Criminal...
I must say I was a little disappointed to hear this album, especially considering I have been looking forward to it since '1st born second'. Its rather removed from the new soul sounds of his former album in attempt to be more contemporary. However, I think the fact I couldn't remember a stand out track speaks volumes and is a testament to the phrase 'stick to what your good at'. Not that the album is entirely terrible and I imagine it will probably grow on me a little more over time but the pared down sound just emphasises the terrible lyrics and at times overly dramatic warbling :(