Bilal: “Airtight’s Revenge”

Bilal Oliver could, I suspect, make a convincing turn as an Afrofuturist– though whether he’d ever want to, I really couldn’t say. He’s flirted with it already, providing supple vocal support to Erykah Badu‘s modern masterpiece New Amerykah: Part I, an album so out-of-this-world, it seems to fit with the basic spirit of the Afrofuturist beat, if not with the genre’s technical specifications. But the music Bilal makes under his own first name carries off the rather impressive trick of nicking Afrofuturism’s greatest artistic virtues, without actually casting its lot with that particular literary and musical movement. Still: A tantalizing affiliation, particularly now that the Soulquarians– with whom Bilal was a dues-paying member– are on extended hiatus.

What I mean to say is, you can imagine Airtight’s Revenge— the first Bilal recording to be released in almost ten years– fitting on the shelf with any of the recent classics that fall under the Afrofuturist umbrella– The Archandroid, Aquemini, stuff from Badu associate Shafiq Husayn– even though, for his part Bilal skips over most of the sci-fi tropes that give Janelle Monae her musical theater appeal and Outkast their literary bent. What those albums do, though, is to simultaneously blast into outer space while somehow having their hearts remain earthbound, to retell a culture’s history and cast personal struggle and triumph alike in the terms of space fantasia. Take out the space part and you have Airtight’s Revenge— an album of extra-orbital imagination and ambition that is fueled by the vision of the individual, that exists chiefly as a vehicle for self-expression.

One could speak, then, at some length about the technical excellencies of the record, of which there are many. One might note, for instance, the way Bilal and his producers– who include Husayn and frequent Mos Def collaborator 88 Keys, among others– create a seamless fusion of soul, R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and a thick trace of Eastern modal music; one might note also how Bilal comes up with not just one but a handful of the year’s dopest hooks, then folds them all into a single track on “All Matter,” or how perfectly sleek and streamlined the space-age production sounds, seeming luxurious and efficient and never cluttered despite the general busy-ness of the arrangements. But what’s more pertinent is how all the stylishness and variety here feels like a natural outpouring of the artist’s own generous, curious personality; how his stellar hooks seem to follow directly from his love of singing; how the production is not just steely, but also rather perplexingly warm and intimate, all befitting a record that seems, above all else, keen on revealing the beating human heart behind the robotic motions of modern R&B.

The balance is one of artistic cunning and showmanship, but also of deep pathos and compassion; my contention is that, for as inventive and otherworldly as the record is, all of its deviousness and inspired craftsmanship are presented not as cleverness for its own sake but almost as unintended afterthoughts, nothing but the result of the artist’s own capacity for positivity, truth-telling, and empathy; they are, in other words, not affectations, but reflections of Bilal himself– singer, artist, human being. The chic get-up of these tracks feels like the result of an imagination given room to roam, an impressively stylish record collection serving as inspiration and a blueprint of sorts, one he only follows so far before going off on his own. The songs, then, are completely disinterested in appealing to any sense of time or trendiness, to the extent that opener “Cake & Eat it Too” feels like it belongs to a different era– a different world, even– then the Missy Elliot/Timbaland collaborations from the last decade, even though it’s that duo’s fusion of club-ready R&B with Asian motifs that Bilal’s song most directly recalls (at least on paper), and ultimately bests. And when certain artistic touchstones are invoked, it’s in such a way that it emphasizes their best, and sometimes least celebrated, qualities; I suppose I can hear echoes of Prince at his druggiest, Sly Stone at his most empathetic, but Bilal clearly looks to his heroes only as starting points, not final destinations.

What is perhaps most impressive, though, is how the album creates such a dense, heavy sound– a sonic sprawl that requires some patience to fully process– but resists sounding oppressive or alienating; the world Bilal creates is very much inhabited by human beings, and he cherishes each and every one of their stories. And so we get songs that speak of class and politics and economics– “Levels,” “Robots,” “The Dollar”– through the megaphone of compassionate humanism, and when “Flying” presents a dark narrative of urban plight and desperation, it hits hard because it doesn’t sound abstract or theoretical in the least. I confess that I’m not as enamored of “Who Are You,” with its false dichotomy of religion and neighborly love, but even here the quest for transcendence is nothing if not honest– something reinforced by standout ballad “Little One,” penned for the artist’s two song, both of whom live with physical handicaps. Not that this last fact is laid bare in the song; there’s no schmaltz here, just the grit, the dirt-under-the-nails real talk of a father to his boys.

That the unfolding of this album is unconventional, be it by the standards of soul, R&B, or what have you, perhaps doesn’t need to be restated; to be honest, though, I wouldn’t even be comfortable leaving it with the much broader tag of “black music.” Succeed though it does in integrating various strands of culture and history, the real sense of unraveling narrative here is of a deeply personal kind; Bilal takes the personal and expresses it as something wildly unique yet profoundly universal, and on that level his motives are the same as Stevie’s and Dylan’s alike.

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