PHOTOGRAPH BY MARC BAPTISTE
TEXT | PETER MARGASAK
PUBLISHED | CHICAGO READER, May 23, 2013
When Philadelphia modern-soul singer Bilal Oliver released his 2001 debut, 1st Born Second, he was poised to be the next big thing out of the Soulquarians collective, which also included D’Angelo, ?uestlove, and J Dilla. But during the decade that he kept his modest following waiting for a second album, the jazz-bred vocalist seemed to do little more than sing hooks on hip-hop tracks for artists such as Common, Little Brother, and Clipse. In 2010, when he finally dropped Airtight’s Revenge, it was worth the wait—he found a sharp edge he’d previously missed. He advances that sound on his recent third album, A Love Surreal (Entertainment One), whose title makes a not-so-subtle wink to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. The single “West Side Girl” makes his debt to Prince obvious, but on most of the album Bilal makes it harder to parse his influences by scrambling them together—the small-scale electronic soul of Timmy Thomas; the earthy, tightly coiled R&B of D’Angelo; the late-night humidity of current urban jazz, represented by pianist Robert Glasper, who guests on the album; the idiosyncratic melodies of Stevie Wonder. On love songs colored with uncertainty and disappointment as well as desire, his voice alternates between a raspy yet malleable falsetto and a throaty, declamatory high tenor. Bilal’s current material isn’t as hooky as the work of, say, Frank Ocean or Miguel, but they’d be less likely to exist if he never had—and he’s got a stylistic breadth and depth of feeling all his own.