Bilal began his career backed by titans: On his 2001 debut, 1st Born Second, producers such as Dr. Dre and the late J. Dilla helped the Philadelphia singer catapult himself into the holy ranks of jazz and soul crossover vocalists.
Around this time, though, the pervasive term "neo-soul" was stickered onto any black R&B artist whose sound was retrofitted enough to spark notions of revivalist soul. For Bilal, the term was a construct as much as a constrictive categorization. From his early days at Philadelphia High School for Creative Performing Arts to his time at New York's New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, he'd been a student of jazz.
He began to break those imposed boundaries: A few years later, his Love For Sale LP was mysteriously bootlegged and fawned over. He had become an unclassifiable soul hero, armed with boogied-out anthems like "Something to Hold On To" and "Hollywood," as well as wailing ballads including "All For Love." Bilal's diesel falsetto melted all over the instruments. More experimental still was 2010's Airtight's Revenge—a rock-oriented album sequenced not as a display of vocal fireworks but as an elliptical narrative.
Bilal's focus on singing and what he calls "space-blues" returns beautifully on the new, Salvador Dali-inspired A Love Surreal LP, which sashays elegantly from Bell Biv Devoe to singing bluebirds.
INDY WEEK: Your new album is named A Love Surreal. When I think about surrealism and music, improvisation and genre-mashing come to mind. How do you apply surrealism to love and your own music?
BILAL: You can tie love to anything, in my opinion. This album was all about reaffirming passion, reaffirming love and restarting the fire.
There's no noticeable overproduction on A Love Surreal, a marked change from modern R&B on the radio. You've said that Airtight's Revenge had too many instruments. How did you strip the production down here?
It was based on doing interesting music but bringing it back to the voice. When I got more into focusing on producing for myself, I got away from singing. I was just being a real musical head. This time, I did everything in sections so I can separate my mind. I did all of the music first, and then when I was done, I put on my vocalist hat. I searched for a studio that had a lot of different styles of mics, so I could get into finding the right vocals.
Other than "The Flow," A Love Surreal has less of a rock feel than Airtight's Revenge. Why?
I think it still does. Everything is starting to work as a clear synergy. This album, more than any album, I wrote all of the songs from the guitar. And that's a real rock approach. I started that on Airtight's Revenge. A lot of this stuff was based off of riffs. A lot of groups out here do rock, but it's not necessarily that. Steely Dan is a good example: I'm just trying to find something that works for me and have that become my own thing.
Have you ever pinpointed that place or song where you can say, "This is Bilal"?
No, and that that's the fun of it—not to try to find it, but to try and re-find it. I don't think I'll be done until I'm dead.
Your friend and frequent collaborator Robert Glasper often praises you as the greatest living male vocalist. How much do you plan to keep a jazz aesthetic or continue inserting jazz theory into your more soul-oriented numbers?
I don't really think about it while we're creating. I just do it. Afterwards, all the hats come in the room and pull out the magnifying glass and analyze it and figure out what we have to do to market it. I don't think, "And now we will insert a jazz chord right here—or maybe not." [Laughs.]
Have you considered recording a straight-up jazz album, perhaps in the vein of Kurt Elling? Hell fucking no! [Laughs.] I think what I do is jazz. Will I ever make an album with more improvisation in it, more instrument solos maybe? That'll be something that I could get into later on when my audience has matured with me. I can alternately venture into that, where I'm not singing all of the time and people can accept that. I like Kurt Elling, but my favorite is Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. I think all of those cats copped their stuff from John Hendricks, anyway.
For "Right at the Core," you collaborated with all-female R&B trio KING. How did happen?
I met KING at Robert Glasper's session when he was recording Black Radio. We started talking about music, and I hadn't even heard the song that they did with Rob. When I heard their music later, I was intrigued. I recorded all of the vocals for my album in Los Angeles, and when I got out there, I called them up. The conversation led to me just going over to their house. Their studio was at the crib, so we hung out there and smoked a few bowls. They had some interesting instruments. Paris [Strother] is an awesome keyboard player: She really knows jazz and we speak the same languages. We just started jamming.
She had this incredible Hammond organ. I started messing around with the organ, and she started messing around on the keyboard. We would trade. She would mess around with the drum sounds, and I would mess around on the keyboard. It turned into a song.
Jesse Boykins III likes to talk about you being his mentor. He says you taught him the phrase, "When you inhale, you're inhaling the universe, and when you exhale, you're becoming God." How does it feel for young R&B artists to view you as something of an oracle?
It feels good for people to respect what I do and come and ask for my criticism. I never really considered Jesse as a student. It's cool when you can get to a certain point in your craft where you can be an older brother. That's what the whole synergy of everything is all about. It makes me feel like I'm growing.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A singer supreme."