Review Summary: The forgotten man of neo-soul goes on a painfully personal journey of catharsis.
There's a good chance that you've never even heard of the guy, but in some hidden corners of the soul world, Bilal's Airtight's Revenge
is one of the most anticipated albums of the year. It seems quite a few people (mostly Soulquarians devotees, admittedly) were impressed enough by his classically-trained voice and his 2001 debut 1st Born Second
to let it have a lasting impact on them, enough to mean that bootlegs copies of his aborted second effort Love for Sale
earned a cult following, and enough to mean that there's still a buzz about an official follow-up coming out a full nine years (!!!) later.
The problem Bilal has is that a lot's happened in soul music over that time period. Back in 2001, 'neo-soul' meant Alicia Keys, Angie Stone, D'Angelo, Maxwell, and Lauryn Hill - hip-hop influences prevailed, but it was still basically recognisable as soul in structure and sound, with the primary distinction between itself and R&B revolving around the pre-concieved idea of 'authenticity' and the even more bewildering notion of 'real instruments'. Now, in 2010, it's gone interstellar - neo-soul means New Amerykah Part One
, it means Platinum Pied Pipers, it means Georgia Anne Muldrow. The emphasis is on twisted futurism, so much so that the art-pop nutcase Janelle Monae - who doesn't really sound much like any neo-soul act once it comes down to it - has been lumped in too. Bilal showed off a few times on 1st Born Second
that he could innovate - closing track "Second Child" was a slab of Miles Davis-esque fusion - but he'd built all his goodwill on tracks like "All That I Am" and "For You" (reasonably standard soul tracks in the Angie Stone vein), with the occasional collaboration with a rapper thrown in, like the still-astonishing "Fast Lane", as well as several dalliances with Common from Electric Circus
onwards. To sound current in 2010, it looked like Bilal would have to change things up radically; in a world where Alicia Keys normally looks a little out of touch, what hope would he have with the same sound?
actually doesn't change up Bilal's sound all that much, but it succeeds anyway, because it not only plays to his strengths, it manages to throw 1st Born Second
itself into a new light. If his goal was to redefine himself, he could barely have done a better job - instead of the smooth womanizer he occasionally came off as on his previous album (his name stands for Beloved Intelligent Lustful and Living it, according to one early press release - that's Bilali, surely?), Airtight's Revenge
paints Bilal as a hopelessly sensitive soul, a man who's often startlingly open about his problems and how unhappy he is. Once the opening two tracks and their unexpectedly urgent drumming are out of the way, it gets pretty bleak - it's all ballads about heartbreak and loneliness, culminating in the startling centrepoint, "Little One". On the face of things, it's a cautionary tale to a young relative that sees Bilal opening up about his life and its failings, in the hope that the youngster won't make the same mistakes. In the context of this soul-searching, deeply introspective album though, it's hard not to see it as Bilal singing to his own younger self - a view that makes the opening lines all the more tragic. 'They say it's gonna take a miracle to bring you back again/They say there's nothing they can do/But I'm not the only one who sees the possibility in you.' This is the sound of a man who knows he's made too mistakes, burned too many bridges, to ever be the man he wanted to be. The music follows suit, building everything over a bruised, resigned piano arpeggio.
For a Bilal fan, the stunning thing about "Little One" is that thanks to its placement on the album, and its emotional impact, it's a sequel of sorts to "Sometimes", the rambling, brutally emotional centrepiece of his debut. That song stood out immediately because of just how emotionally naked it was, running the full gamut from a God complex, to drug addiction, to sexual frustration, to fantasies of domestic abuse, to the self-hatred that stems from them, to visions of suicide. Yet, this album just shows us that this is what Bilal's been about all along. There's no denying that musically, there are dozens of neo-soul records in the past three or four years that reach far beyond the limits of most of Airtight's Revenge
("Levels" and possibly "Robots" aside), but nobody is writing or delivering lyrics like this.
Emotionally, Airtight's Revenge
is so revealing that it gets difficult to listen to. Finale "Think It Over" see him experiencing the self-doubt of somebody who doesn't think they're good enough for the one they love - 'All the fun we had....I never want to take away from you/I feel like you're flying/And I'm weighing you down/You should be free....'. It makes the effort to introduce a positive note to end on ('there'll always be a hole in my heart, there'll always be a special place for you'), but it only succeeds in sounding completely defeated, like a last-ditch effort to claw back somebody you've already lost. Even the socio-political tracks get a little self-loathing - "Flying" eventually wraps itself in a story of prostitution, but Bilal uses its opening passages focusing on his own inability to do anything to change it, in a way that at the outset is almost venomous. In retrospect, it's no surprise that of he chose "High & Dry" when invited to cover a Radiohead song - he made the opening line there sound like an attack on his own hubris, and that kind of attack is found throughout this album. Even the more straightforward songs - "Move On" - feel like they've bottomed out.
It's possible that the album feels more depressed than it because of Bilal's gift as an interpreter. Clearly, there's no denying that the man has an absolutely incredible voice, with an outrageous range in both the musical and emotional sense. His interviews recently have seen him proclaim that he simply sees himself as a blues singer too, which would explain any conscious effort to make this sound personal and downbeat (and would also explain the fluid lead guitar lines that litter the album). Whatever the reason, though, Airtight's Revenge
sounds like the album a man in Bilal's position might be expected to make. He hasn't just had his tribulations with his record label to contend with - he's also had to contend with persistent and unsubstantiated rumours that he's suffering from addiction to crack cocaine, and he's had to care for two sons that were born with autism and sickle cell anaemia, respectively. Life hasn't dealt Bilal the kindest hand, but he was blessed with a great voice and clearly, he's found solace in it. Airtight's Revenge
sounds like he had a lot of *** he needed to work through, but from great talent, and great catharsis, has come great art. It's hard to imagine that this will break through to any major audience, since it's even less accessible than the rejected Love for Sale
, but it seriously deserves it.