When asked about singer and songwriter Bilal, Erykah Badu remarked, “What a frequency.” Her word choice is appropriate, considering the music he has slowly cultivated over the past decade. Unlike most male artists in R&B and hip-hop, Bilal expresses emotions as opposed to making statements or delivering messages. His songs are often a feeling or about feelings. For a brief moment in the early ’00s, the “neo-soul” tag carved an opening in the male African-American music market and allowed such expressions to live commercially alongside more traditionally successful sentiments, like machismo and testosterone. Bilal benefited from this campaign and his tender 2000 single “Soul Sista” became a quasi-hit. However, his sensitive-man sentiment, best expressed in the “I want to love you in the right way” hook, was strangely overshadowed by the more conventional sex appeal of a shirtless, six-packed D’Angelo. After his second album was leaked in 2003 and a subsequent falling out with his record label, Bilal spent the remaining years on the periphery of the music business, occasionally surfacing on record to contribute a chorus for a major rapper (Kanye West, Common) or a harmony for a name-brand singer (Badu, Beyonce).
In spite of his lack of a public presence, the need for an artist like Bilal has never disappeared. Considering the seemingly endless reign of machismo in popular male R&B and hip-hop, Bilal’s return to record has been long overdue. All this back-story places numerous expectations on his bombastically titled Airtight’s Revenge. So, why is it such a good thing that the album is not a tour-de-force?
There is an appropriate sense of humility in the fact that Airtight’s Revenge is not the “comeback” we have come to expect from our back-from-the-cultural-dead celebrities. The album is a personal, quiet yet funky collection of songs about one man’s relationships. It accomplishes what it sets out to do — self-express — and nothing more. There will certainly be a niche of listeners (most likely the same ones that still consider “Soul Sista” an anthem) that will read more into this album. However, for most the album is and will remain one man’s diary. And this is exactly the sort of humble music needed.
Bilal presents the album as a personal dialogue through a conversational style of music. His lyrics often move fluidly (and idiosyncratically) like a string of thoughts being made on the spot, such as in “Move On”: “I heard this song that used to belong to you and me/ Now that song makes me cry/ So freely because I can’t stop the thought of you/ Leaving me, baby.” Likewise, the music matches the twists and turns of the language, such as the different bridges used on the single fantasy relationship-reboot “Restart.” Best of all is the album’s sparest song “Who Are You,” which features a tight lyric construction and a subtle arrangement.
Bilal opens with a wonderful set-up between a “boy who said he was a Virgo … until he read in the paper that he might be a Leo” and a “girl who thought she was a Christian … until she heard from the sun that she was really an Egyptian.” The song is his most imaginative, as he continues to explore how identity can be both personally constructed or externally influenced all while drawing on images of street demonstrations and the Pope. At times the writing is admittedly unconvincing or lacks provocation. “All Matter” is filled with waffling sentiments like, “Ain’t nothin’ new/ But always changing.” Fortunately Bilal is smart enough to place emphasis on the most engaging lyric, “What is love?/ Cool on the outside, hot in the middle,” by placing it in the heart of his chorus.
The success of Airtight’s Revenge should be credited to Bilal’s close community of musician friends, particularly his collaboration with drummer and producer Steve McKie (Jill Scott, Estelle). The consistent exchange between words and music makes the album Bilal’s most focused record to date. With the exception of the topical boom-bap of “Robots,” the album grooves at a mellow pace and keeps the artist’s heart at the center. Nottz, 88 Keys, Shafiq Husayn and Tone Whitefield all contribute one track each, but remain within the aesthetic style of the whole album. And all of this in less than 48 minutes.
Perhaps because of this coherence, the record owes more to contemporary album-oriented indie rock than pop, R&B or hip-hop. These songs aren’t a smattering of verses in service of big hooks, like the occasional shared french fry to decorate the Big Mac. Instead, Bilal and McKie place emphasis on the craft of each song and the arrangement of each instrument. Bilal’s voice is treated as one of these parts, so there is a flat quality to the sound. This may frustrate fans of Bilal’s voice or those expecting a conventional star-centric album that places the spotlight on a voice or an instrument. Instead, Bilal’s feelings are the centerpiece here. That alone makes Airtight’s Revenge a welcome return for a needed voice.