Once upon a time in a land far away, there lived a young prince who was hailed as the next new thing. Powerful record executives and world class producers almost hurt themselves to work with the young impresario. But it seemed that the genius that he encapsulated was hard to translate to a broader audience. Met with little interest above cult status, he receded from the spotlight, occasionally coming to the surface for a guest appearance or even a concert.
A short synopsis of the career of Bilal, a very different, and very good, singer. Trained to do opera, but hailing from Philly, it was only so long before soul pulled him back in. Thank God for that. His first album did have the backing of Jimmy Iovine, the man at the center at most of the biggest musical successes of the last decade or so. Dr. Dre heard some of his tracks and had to work with him, which resulted in two tracks for his debut album. But that album, largely produced by himself and assorted Soulquarians, really didn't do much. He still has cult status with the wildly devoted Soulquarian and neo-soul set but that doesn't translate into sales.
And so that may be why his sophomore album, Love For Sale, was shelved. Initially there were postings on his MySpace encouraging us to not download it so that it wouldn't be shelved. But I waited and waited, so I finally just found the darn thing.
One thing you can never accuse Bilal of being is conventional. That's probably why he never translated to a larger audience. His kookiness is just too kooky for the general public. I believe that the public has a high tolerance for musicians' eccentricities, but as long as they give you that regular sounding music, everything is gravy. Bilal doesn't live life like that though. Music is his life so if he's eccentric in one thing, it will find its way into a song. This album is no different. It starts off with Something To Hold On To, which immediately dives into some swirling orchestration and his high pitched wails. This time around, I guess he decided he wasn't going to ease people into his rollercoaster but just push you into it.
While this jolt is somewhat disconcerting, it prepares you for the rest of the album. The next track is actually a slow burner that is one of my favorites You're All I Need (Feels Like Heaven). Here we see why Bilal is so appealing. In his scratchy falsettos and their accompanying disparate, yet cohesive harmonies, he makes these especially infectious hooks. On the next couple of songs, he takes us back, first to a Family Stone area with Gotsta Be Cool and then to a Curtis Mayfield/Al Green sounding Make Me Over which thumps like no other.
The next couple of tracks sound more like Soulquarian manifestations. I almost can see James Poyser (amazing keyboardist) working on these tracks. They all have a relaxed feel to them but still reminiscent of old soul with its brass orchestration punctuating so many elements of the song. The groove of the relationship song Get Out Of My Hair is best indicative of this quality while Lord Don't Let It takes us to a more relaxed side, yet not still.
In Hollywood, it sounds like Bilal stole Erykah's band from Worldwide Underground and asked them to rework some Cameo records. It is not exactly the most fulfilling track. The next track's extended introduction helps wipe out the taste but you can tell that it is going to be along the lines of a meandering opus that Mr. Oliver tends to favor. White Turns To Gray dwells in the land between seduction and longing. As I listened to the song, I couldn't tell if he was reminiscing about past times with an ex-lover or trying to seduce his current one. The song has such a dreamlike quality, it doesn't matter. You can just tell that someone will be sleeping with someone else by the end of the song. And these are the tracks where he excels. From his live performances and even his albums, it seems like Bilal needs some time to fully explore his ideas. The repetition and freedom of these extended tracks allows him the lattitude to really get what's on his mind out there. African drums and panting helps give the next opus a hurried pace. Sorrow Blood And Tears then leads into some spoke word from Common then moves into Bilal singing over a Fela Kuti like rhythm. Once again more time means Bilal gets to travel as far as he would like to go. Without hindrance, you feel as though you are getting the true artist. The album finishes with Sweet Sour You, another track that sounds like Freakquency was involved. This time though it's not really off-putting, instead rather catchy and well sweet.
Whereas 1st Born Second was all over the place, this sophomore offering is much leaner and easier to take. I was amazed that the only track I felt the need to skip was the aforementioned Hollywood. Bilal did great work on this album. Sad that so few will ever hear it.