The neo-soul movement of the ’90s/’00s broke a lot of incredible music but also a lot of spirits; a lot of souls paid a price for all that great soul. Three of the most talented artists of that era began long periods of exile just when they should have been at the height of their creative powers: D’Angelo, Maxwell and singer/songwriter/producer Bilal.
Bilal, a Philadelphia native who always seemed constrained by the “neo-soul” label and the major-label structure, was knocked around by the industry for many of the years after his 2001 debut, “1st Born Second.”
That album was an underground classic, but his second LP never had a commercial release (it was leaked, and his label shelved the work and dropped him). Bilal continued to tour on his existing material as well as with new, unreleased tracks and sharp reworkings of other people’s music. He finally dropped a sophomore album, “Airtight’s Revenge,” in 2010, and a third release, “A Love Surreal,” came just last month. On the new album, the singer is relaxed and introspective, and the music is dreamy and free — it feels like the album Bilal was meant to make.
He performed almost all of “A Love Surreal” Friday at the Black Cat (with opener Alison Carney). The music was gorgeous and unrestrained, and the singer seemed genuinely excited to present it. Some of “A Love Surreal” is challenging and strange — on “Slipping Away,” Bilal wails over a track that sounds like a mental breakdown with a sci-fi movie playing in the background — but ultimately is rewarding. He has said that it is meant to be an aural Salvador Dali painting; that’s an overwrought concept, but it works in the execution. The album is obviously influenced by such experimentalists as Flying Lotus and Robert Glasper, and in some ways it feels like they are more his peers than his ’90s-era musical contemporaries.
Bilal eased the sold-out crowd into weird fare with “West Side Girl,” a disgustingly funky track from “Surreal” that shows of his full vocal range — sweet falsetto, controlled shrieks and all. That and a conga-heavy cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Too High” primed the crowd for the likes of “Astray,” an artfully muddled blues tune, and the celestial universe of “Right at the Core.”
Those looking for a hit parade probably left disappointed. Bilal is not about leading singalongs — he’s about unfamiliar, 10-minute arrangements, long instrumental solos, vocal runs and riffs. It’s an approach that kept his stage show fresh during the years when he didn’t have a new album to hawk, and it earned him a fiercely loyal following of true music heads.
But some folks just want to hear him sing “Soul Sista” and “Fast Lane” — the early tracks that put him on the map. When one person shouted out such a request, Bilal responded: “C’mon, man, you know we gonna play that [expletive], just sit back — I’m-a take you to places.” After that, he played another hour or so of mostly new material, and then an encore of his standards, including “Soul Sista” and “Sometimes,” from “1st Born Second,” and “All Matter,” from “Airtight’s Revenge.” Sure, they were erased of almost all recognizable elements and restyled to fit his current sound. But technically, he made good on his promise.
Godfrey is a freelance writer.