*You don’t listen to a Bilal album, you experience it; the latest experience comes courtesy of A Love Surreal, a suite of songs that tug and poke at your emotions until you’re completely enthralled by his amazing vocals and the depths of his lyrics.
Anyone who’s experienced 1st Born Second, Airtight’s Revenge or managed to get their hands on Love for Sale is familiar with being drawn deeply into the music and navigated through story after story in a way that leaves you breathless and wanting once the album has completed.
A Love Surreal doesn’t disappoint in its poetry or refusal to compromise to what R&B is currently being defined as. Instead, Bilal (who produced 11 of the 14 songs) retains complete creative license over his trademark sound and continues to produce music that relates to the depths of relationships, the crust of society and not just the party and bullsh*t on your FM dial.
The locomotive feel of the album’s intro sets the stage for the journey Mr. Oliver is taking us on and “West Side Girl” is the perfect catalyst for reaffirming this is the same Bilal that’s been turning crowds out for well over a decade. His voice remains as remarkable as it was on in those guest appearances for Common, yet he’s as raw and savvy as on “Sometimes”, but retains the sensitivity in his lyricism and emotive vocal fashioning like he did with “Soul Sista” and “Think it Over”.
It doesn’t take long to get into one of the true gems of the album, “Back to Love”; a bouncy mid-tempo groove attacks the sensibilities of a fleeting relationship and opens with lines, “Tired of all these wars, dwelling in the past/Searching for the honesty and all that jazz/what are we here for, what are we doing/Last time I checked, thought it was screwing” and proceeds to rediscover the destination of love in a relation. There’s a beauty in Bilal’s songwriting that can easily be overlooked because it often contains elements of situations many of us can relate to and the casual listener takes that for granted when listening to an artist as steeped in sophistication as Bilal.
That sophistication is revealed through metaphor (“Winning Hand”), suggested simplicity (“The Core”) and the sparseness of country (“Lost for Now”), but his artistry is at its most overt on the retro-sounding “Never be the Same” which channels Curtis Mayfield and the Robert Glasper-assisted “Butterfly” which weave social commentary, personal growth and the prevailing message of love, which is felt throughout the set.
The album ends as it begins, but this time it’s clear that locomotive sound is the sound of progress, a moving in the direction that Bilal wants to go.
That direction is beyond the politics of a major label and outside the confines of restriction, the independence of Bilal Oliver’s music is felt continuously for 52 minutes, as well as his the depths of his soul through jazzy interpolations and a sort of an improvisational view of life through the eyes of a man living it as many of us are.
A Love Surreal is a triumph, an exclamation point and a marker for the keepers of Rhythm and Blues to remain true to the sound of Ray, Curtis, Aretha, Stevie, Marvin and Luther. The real winner are Bilal’s fans who didn’t have to wait or expect new material not to come, but have been treated to an honest rendering of what music looks like in an artist’s soul.
Between rhetoric and reality is where you’ll find Al-Lateef Farmer: Black man, husband, social documentarian, and slinger of Soul by the pound. His brand of social commentary rooted in independent thought can be found at http://worldaccording2teef.com, and on Twitter @wrldacrdng2teef.