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Bilal - A Love Surreal

 8.5/10

Bilal came to me in an hour of need. I'm not saying it was a spiritual experience, but with his heavy soul tendencies I won't deny there was some spirituality in it. The problem with tasking yourself with the at times overwhelming objective of digesting copious amounts of new music in order to write a semi-functioning blog about it is that you eventually become jaded and bored. An unavoidable mindset, and certainly not conducive to critical review. Experiencing such a moment recently, I was hunting around desperately for something to listen to, to soothe my aching ears. I happened upon Bilal.

The career of this man began unconventionally in the strict neo-soul mould, but recent trends in hip-hop and R&B music have seen a close alignment with the way Bilal has plied his trade and what is currently in vogue. Releasing just 3 records (plus an additional unreleased one, due to label issues), in 12 years is slow. It's glacially slow. However Bilal's work ethic is more in tune with someone like The-Dream than D'Angelo. He has churned out an impressive resume of appearance credits between records, incorporating everyone from Jay-Z and Beyonce to Clipse and Solange. He even appeared on a Daedelus track. So fans haven't been short changed, but it is nice to finally get a new long player.

Now I say that he came to me in an hour of need, and you may very well find yourself echoing my statement. A Love Surreal is a wonderfully smooth affair, it is soul tonic for the tortured mind. Whereas his debut, 1st Born Second, was a hip-hop hybrid number, and his second, Airtight's Revenge, was the closest you'll get to Prince without actually trawling through his impressive catalogue, A Love Surreal is a much more settled piece. Gone is the over-reliance on heavier, distorted funk/rock guitar and the harder-edged collaborations with the likes of Common and Mos Def, as well as the slightly ill-advised Dr. Dre dalliances, replaced by wonderfully grooved electric jazz pianos, Roots-like percussive integrity and spacey digital funk. Coupled with the prevalence of a much more considered approach to the guitars, which create atmosphere rather than inject edgier venom, a smoother sound is produced. And of course, a singer who finally feels like he's fronting the kind of organic soul music he is at home with. Despite his production capabilities being harnessed by Clipse and Jay-Z and his hire-a-hook side job in the hip hop world, this is where Bilal sounds most comfortable, in that beautiful late 80s - early 90s perma haze of groove tinged with Prince-levels of experimental soul.

Nowhere is this more obvious than West Side Girl. Bilal creates a track dripping with cool, a phat (yes), low-down throwback that harks back to, of all artists, Jamiroquai, if slightly muted. Rather than sounding dated or dusty, it's almost refreshing. 'Hey, how’d you do it? / You got me back up, on my 90’s kick, yeah', and thank god for that, although it isn't strictly true, as during the 90s Bilal was rolling with Common and Black Thought. His harmonising is a feature of the record and is introduced early. The chorus sees him snap momentarily out of his James Dean coolness to approach a falsetto but it fails to raise the heart rate of the song in to triple figures. The same is true of lead single Back To Love, the third track. If you didn't know better you'd say it was Questlove gracing the skins, such is the authenticity of the beat. Whether this was done intentionally, maybe Bilal wanted to make something more organic than the myriad of highly produced sounds in the contemporary R&B landscape, or whether it was just his preference, the use of live instrumentation in the majority of the recording process is a welcome breath of fresh air. On Back To Love it results in a track that sounds so crisp and new, the jazzy electronics that would normally be slathered on something like this gives way for a live band atmosphere. You're in the room with Bilal, it's friday night, it's smokey, you're alone, and you're about to text your girl, 'Baby, come here!  / Let me kiss your temple, breath in your ear'.

It's this youthful exuberance from a man on the wrong side of 30 that endears. On Back To Love he sounds like he is 17, literally exclaiming 'Making reservations back to love / Your happiness is what I'm for! / ..down to Spain / Into Morocco, Marrakesh'. That same vibe is carried over in to Winning Hand, a beautiful bassline powers an uncomplicated percussion rhythm, as Bilal croons over a dirty guitar 'Baby your winning hand/ A game change, I’m on the roll'. The metaphor may be slightly 3rd grade but the sincerity is by no means phoned in.

Beyond Winning Hand, things take a slightly darker turn, as if he turned off Justin Timberlake and placed the needle on Gil Scott-Heron. A higher focus on marauding, desolute sounding electric guitars, and a more sombre delivery from Bilal signify a disparate change of mood from the opening few songs, the darkness has descended. Longing And Waiting manages to inject a hint of panic in to the atmosphere as Bilal croons 'we got a lot of catching up to do,  / and I'm longing and waiting / I'm longing and waiting.' Never Be The Same sounds nostalgic, as if it was recorded in 1972, there is an opaque quality to it, as if you're listening through a time machine. The lyrics enhance this mood, 'It’s been about a year and a month / Living in a black hole'. It's dark, and unexpected after the optimism Bilal has shown through the early part of the record.

Slipping Away is the greatest marker of the sea change on this record. It's a stunning, knife edge thriller in which Bilal exhibits his vocal dexterity. It reminds me of the descent in to madness scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, the whole thing crashes as insane rising guitar licks engulf Bilal's tortured screams. He doesn't articulate any thoughts past the 4 minute mark, but his desperate wailing enrages the whole affair. The start of the song, 'your love is, slipping away / For a while / I see it in your eyes / And in your voice' is the clear change in focus from playful, joyful days to severe pessimism. One of the best tracks of the year.

This is a trend that is common through Lost For Now, Astray, Never Be The Same and Climbing, certainly not rays of sunshine, punctuated by soulful, soaring guitars and despondent moods. Butterfly is a falsetto paired with a haunting piano section. Lost For Now is an almost country sounding guitar combo, he channels his inner Johnny Cash as he describes a slow, tortured journey back to optimism and positivity. The Flow then compliments this beautifully, the perfect end to the record, an aggressive drum beat partners a call to arms, 'Woke up this morning to a sound of this new beginning / Sweet song to the wing, / Suddenly I knew just where to begin'. Rather than leave us to wallow, which he could by all rights do, Bilal provides us with his blueprint for redemption. It's quite stunning how the mood changes so dramatically from happiness and youthful expectancy to pure desolation and depression. The change is stylistically marked by the introduction of the sinister guitar, but the live-band feel is never tampered with.

8.5/10. I really do love this record. You think you're in for a jazzed out groove through the early 90s, Jamiroquai style, and then Bilal flips it wonderfully, injecting some true 1970s soul and even introduces a bit of Bobby Womack darkness to our ears. Slipping Away is one of the best songs of the year. This is the essential Bilal record, and Justin Timberlake will be absolutely green with envy over a project like this because it's everything he tried and failed to achieve. One of the best records of the year.
Best Tracks: West Side Girl, Back To Love, Slipping Away

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