Love songs can be tricky business. At its core, the majority of Soul/R&B music is about falling in and out of love and all the complications it brings. As Bilal quips, “Like grandma used to always say, ‘nothin’ new under the sun.’” The only thing really separating Jeremih’s “Birthday Sex” and the other pop drivel that dominates Top 40 radio from the material people prefer labeling Neo-Soul is execution and a matter of personal preference.
After Airtight's Revenge was issued in 2010, Bilal picked up a Grammy nomination for that album's "Little One" and continued to be one of the most valuable guest vocalists. He enhanced the Roots' Grammy-nominated Undun and Robert Glasper Experiment's Grammy-winning Black Radio, the latter of which includes brilliant work on a version of David Bowie's "Letter to Hermione. " For his third official release, Bilal entered the studio with the intent to record an EP, but exited with an album -- one that possibly tops his previous release and has a very different character.
If Bilal's 2010 effort, Airtight's Revenge, functioned as an electro-funk "fuck you!" to the unfortunate neo-soul label that has dogged his career, A Love Surreal is a Salvador Dali-inspired outing that juxtaposes soul, funk and jazz sounds to create an imaginative redefinition of R&B. The Philly-based artist has always existed in the highly respected wing of the R&B pantheon and his fearlessness in feeding his musical muse — commercial considerations be damned — has been a defining characteristic of the artist's career. Bilal describes creating A Love Surreal as a surrealistic exploration of love and, indeed, he delivers on this end.
Released a full nine years after his 2001 debut album 1st Born Second—a trying period defined by a failed battle with his label to release what would have been his second album—Bilal’s 2010 record Airtight’s Revenge captured the neo-soul singer on the edge. With no career left to lose, Bilal unleashed a splatter of raw emotions, weighing in on big themes of relationships, religion and identity as if each song had to stand as his final thoughts on the matter. Unnervingly tense, it was the work of an artist who was no longer taking anything for granted.
It’s possible A Love Surreal couldn’t have come at a better time (though first-month sales appear to argue otherwise…) as more eyes are on the R&B field than they have been in years thanks to buzz acts Frank Ocean, The Weeknd and Miguel. Much like those artists, A Love Surreal is an album that eschews the typical trends of radio-focused R&B, opting instead for threads of psychedelia (see: Bilal’s DMT-style vocal meandering on “Climbing”), throwback mixing (“West Side Girl”, “Never Be the Same”) and subtler lyricism that doesn’t rely so much on absolutes and alcohol. Much of A Love Surreal‘s sound can also be traced back to Los Angeles collectives SomeOthaShip and Brainfeeder.
A Love Surreal is only the third studio album Bilal has managed in 12 years, a remarkable fact that testifies to a career marked primarily by speed bumps and absences. These days, he's known more as a guest or hired session gun than a solo artist and A Love Surreal feels very much like the personal project of someone who has embraced the ability to make music away from commercial expectations: jazzy, muted, idiosyncratic, and completely without high-profile guests (unless you count young jazz iconoclast Robert Glasper as such). A Love Surreal breathes some of the same insular oxygen as Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything?, another effort by someone who had figured out that he wasn't ever going to be a marquee star, and, with a shrug, closed his studio door to the outside world.
This bracingly good disc marks the reemergence of one of the most overlooked R&B artists of the last decade. The Philadelphia singer-songwriter got lost in the early ’00s in the shadows of peers like D’Angelo and, while his expansive vocals have served many soul, jazz, and hip-hop collaborators recently, he hasn’t had the chance to shine. Until now.
Bilal ‘A LOVE SURREAL’. Now that R&B is rediscovering its experimental fringe, with songwriters like Frank Ocean, Miguel and the Weeknd, the time may be opportune for Bilal, a songwriter from Philadelphia who has been on that fringe since the neosoul boom of the 1990s, when he began ….