Philly born and New York resident Bilal has a career now spanning over 15 years. Always on the slight left of the R&B and soul world, Bilal in recent years has managed to remain relevant unlike many of his contemporaries, including working on numerous interesting and varied collaborations from Robert Glasper to Otis Brown III and Slum Village to Kendrick Lamar, with his distinctive falsetto voice adding an old school character and a touch of vintage to many of these projects.
His new album Another Life is his first to be created using a single producer, namely Adrian Younge, a LA based musician, DJ and producer who has become known to craft albums using traditional live instrumentation and by recording to tape rather than utilising modern studio recording technology. This approach helps capture the classic soul/funk aesthetic of the late 1960s and early 70s period of which Younge’s productions have now become synonymous.
The album utilises acoustic drums, electric bass, guitar and either piano, organ or electric piano for the keyboard parts. ‘Star now’ even makes use of a Mellotron, a Birmingham (England) built electronic keyboard manufactured from 1963–1970, where each key controls the playback of a pre-recorded tape loop, mainly for string type sounds. Very old school and rarely used in soul music. The only electronic element heard on the album is from ‘Pleasure Toy’, which replaces live drums for Roland TR808 rhythms.
Luckily, there is not an overuse of guests unlike many modern soul/R&B records with only Kendrick Lamar, Kimbra and Big K.R.I.T. added. Rapper Big K.R.I.T. is an unnecessary addition, although, Kimbra, the soulful New Zealand based vocalist adds a smooth female touch to the project. Progressive West Coast MC Kendrick injects a verse on ‘Money over love’, but again I’m not convinced that the additional rap lyrics add much to this record.
Please note that the album has a short running length, with only two songs running over 3 and a half minutes and the entire album clocked at 38 minutes. Nonetheless, you don’t get bored and the dozen tracks are all well crafted, and there is always a sense of believability in Bilal’s delivery and lyrical quality, with highlights including ‘I don’t really care’, ‘Holding it back’ and ‘Satellites’.
But the album isn’t perfect, and although Adrian Younge is a decent musician, he tends to play all instrument parts himself which does lead to a sense of familiarity with some of his musical ideas. Plus, there are better musicians out there and the use of other players would have offered a different perspective to Younge’s ideas. And the role of the producer is about is making critical decisions like this for the better of the album.
Another Life, Bilal’s fifth album won’t produce a hit single as it isn’t that type of record – which a shame. Bilal will probably forever be the underground soul singer who makes really cool records rather than commercially successful ones. His diverse catalogue, blending of genres and willingness to take musical risks has to be applauded, and in that respect Bilal is in ways similar to D’Angelo.
But if Bilal began to tour more outside of the US and with a band he could flourish on the live circuit. Luckily this summer Bilal is touring Europe, including a rare UK date in London on 21st July 2015. But maybe Bilal is destined to be the underdog, and we all love the underdog.