Bilal is on a roll. The 35-year-old R&B singer has been a go-to session musician since the ’90s, scoring vocal credits on records like Jay Z’s “American Gangster” and Common’s “Like Water for Chocolate,” but lately his name has been popping up more than usual. For starters, there’s his prominent role on Kendrick Lamar’s critically adored “To Pimp a Butterfly” and the release this week of his fourth album, “In Another Life.” Bilal will be riding the momentum to the Birchmere on Friday.
Neo means no
Though he is often described as a neo-soul artist, Bilal eschews the label. “I’m making music that’s really for the future,” says Bilal, who was a founding member of the Soulquarians collective with artists like Erykah Badu and D’Angelo in the late ’90s. “[I’m] genre-bending because I’m collecting so many different styles of music and putting it into the sound.” That idea sticks on the eclectic “In Another Life,” which oscillates between late-’60s psychedelic rock (“Star Now”), slinky electro pop (“Pleasure Toy”) and quirky funk experiments (“Lunatic”).
Sing about me
When working on “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Bilal wasn’t just asked to sing hooks or build harmonies. Instead, Lamar wanted him to act. For instance, on the track “Institutionalized,” he embodies the voice of Lamar’s grandmother, who implores him to “wash yo’ ass” before he can truly be grown-up. “His vision was very cinematic,” Bilal says. “He wanted me to play a role. When I was singing, it was almost like a character.” Lamar returned the favor by contributing a verse of his own to the “In Another Life” track “Money Over Love.”
The truth is out there?
Paranoia brought on by technology and social media is a major theme on “In Another Life,” best evidenced by Bilal’s lyrics on the conspiracy-theorizing “Satellites.” “On the satellite/ Watching the world/ Watch people as they do what they do to people,” he sings. Bilal’s anxiety about privacy came to him once he realized how easy and accessible information about strangers is, whether through the news or Facebook. “That’s why I named the album ‘In Another Life,’ ” he says. “Everybody’s life is really out there for you to see.”
Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; Fri., 7:30 p.m., $35.
More music stories from Express: