It is nearly impossible to write an honest critique or assessment of Bilal Oliver’s musical career without mentioning his 2006 unreleased tour de force Love For Sale. Heavily bootlegged months before its release, Interscope shelved the album for commercial purposes. Some said the album’s experimental sound wasn’t marketable, others said that since it was so heavily bootlegged there was no way the album would sell. Consequently, the album’s mystique and legacy grew as one of the most notable casualties of the digital piracy era. But more important than that was the music.
Love for Sale was easily one of the most stunning and progressive musical statements of its generation. It transcended whatever genre you wanted to box Bilal in (R&B, neo soul, take your pick) and put him on a completely different musical plane than his contemporaries. At the time, its musical approach lapped the tired and hackneyed rut that soul music was beginning to find itself in. However, fans ate it up and passed the album around like viral internet meme. The album’s reach was truly expansive. So expansive that Bilal was able to tour and perform songs off of an album that never had an SKU. Seriously, it was that good. If you haven’t heard it, get your Google blog search on, or have your niece or nephew fire up their P2P network of choice. The Love For Sale history is important when discussing Bilal’s new release—A Love Surreal—because, with this release, Bilal has finally escaped the shadow that his would-be second album had cast over his remarkable catalogue and career.
Surreal is Bilal’s fourth studio album, but only his third proper release. His debut album, 2001’s 1st Born Second, immediately thrust Bilal’s music in the same category as D’Angelo, Omar, and a small group of legitimate soul musicians of that era. A Love For Sale followed in 2006 and immediately made its predecessor a relic (we’ve discussed its majesty). His second proper release, 2010’s Airtight’s Revenge was widely praised by critics and fans. Taking a bit of a radical approach, Bilal teamed with drummer Steve McKie to craft an amazingly strong experimental album tinged with rock and electronic flourishes. Airtight was tight. It featured some of Bial’s greatest songs. The highs were high indeed, but the album was still overshadowed by Love For Sale. Critics were happy, fans were satiated, but the Love For Sale elephant was in the room—and it was chillin’.
A Love Surreal is Bilal’s most balanced and fully formed release—proper or otherwise. On this LP, Bilal finds himself in full control of his sound and his art. Whereas his earlier notable releases featured peaks that will live in soul music lore, Surreal operates as an album whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That might sound trite, but at first blush, it is quite easy to overlook Surreal’s subtlety and beauty. There is no “Sometimes” on this new album. There is no “All For Love” and there certainly is no “All Matter.” However, what you get here is a collection of sophisticated and nuanced songs that sit and germinate in your consciousness begging your brain for another listen.
It seems that what Bilal has set out to do on this album is create an amalgamation of all the different influences and approaches he’s used over the years and then douse it with some water to make it chill. Album opener “West Side Girl” is all squelchy synth funk and sexy overtones, and struts down the street like Controversy-era Prince. The song is slickness distilled and deceptively catchy. “Back to Love,” the album’s lead single, could at first be heard as schmaltzy midtempo tripe, but throw on some headphones and listen to its immaculate instrumental arrangement and how Bilal’s layered background vocals give this song a seductively eerie feel.
The entire album is like this. To say it’s a grower would be a dramatic understatement. “Winning Hand” seems straightforward enough, but let that bassline work on you for a while. Or maybe it’s the song’s synth and Rhodes embellishments that get you. Yet again, it might be the song’s chorus that contemplates production legend J Dilla as Bilal’s blackjack dealer of his female ace…or is she a queen? Its coda rides out on a groove so smooth that I’m not sure something similar has ever been served up on a Bilal album. “Climbing,” “Longing and Waiting,” and “Right to the Core” is, quite simply, the most lethal trio of songs Bilal has strung together on record. The latter, a duet with King’s Paris Strother, has an ease and simplicity that are remarkably compelling.
You’d think an album driven by mid-to-downtempo grooves and ballads would be a drag, but when they’re done in the same style of the greats, it’s kind of hard not to be slain by the precision with which these songs are executed. Recently, Bilal shared his favorite 25 albums with Complex Magazine. Funkadelic’s 1971 masterpiece Maggot Brain was on that list, and I’ll be damned if “Slipping Away” isn’t a direct ode to that album’s title track. Complete with an Eddie Hazel-esque guitar solo, Bilal’s “Slipping Away” is able to incite the same descent into misery and desperation that George Clinton’s crew was able to communicate instrumentally over 40 years ago. He lightens things up with the acoustic guitar-driven “Lost For Now.” The song is straight-ahead folk music, but not in the clumsy way he tried to pull off this sound on the second half of Airtight’s Revenge. Bilal has found his sound, across genres, and the results are stunning.
Far too often we’ve seen the soul music vanguard of the late ’90s and early 00s wrestle with a dizzying array of personal and professional demons that have paralyzed their musical output. D’Angelo’s career is an epic story unto itself and who knows when we’ll hear from Lauryn Hill again. When Love For Sale was shelved in 2006, Bilal was thought to have thrown in the towel like the rest of these legends who have fallen by the collective wayside. He could have easily packed it in and started doing production work or something else altogether, letting the mystique and circumstances around that album strangle his career and musical maturity. Instead, he’s used that setback as an opportunity to propel his art forward. It’s a fascinating case study in perseverance really, and listeners are lucky for it.