If there was one R&B artist for whom the neo-soul seemed limiting, it was Philadelphia native Bilal. None of his recordings resembled sycophantic worship of soul artists who thrived in the ’60 and ’70s, and it wasn’t just because his voice — classically trained, capable of singing opera in seven languages — was so unique. While some inspirations were detectable, his recordings were wholly modern and became increasingly creative. His individuality led to being dropped from a major label, and he went several years without releasing any solo material. Through evangelism from his peers and word of mouth from his early fans, Bilal gained an insatiable following and eventually landed on a sympathetic independent label, where he was finally able to thrive creatively.
There once was a time the elders and the sanctified, when walking through a sacred place, held one hand up, and on that one raised hand, pointed their index finger. The gesture had to do with direction, testimony and reverence. It was a quiet, powerful ritual; a sort of apology for a disturbance or an acknowledgement of the work at hand: sermonizing, shouting, singing, prayer, blaspheming, laying down burdens, tapping tambourines. Shaking free.
These days, we still raise that one quiet finger. It is a mostly involuntary, respectful act, similar to the head nod or the raised fist. It is an act that says you are moved and you want to be in the number.
I was born as a second child All I got was hand me downs All that is what was left . . .
“Second Child” produced by Bilal
These are exciting times in music; a return to purity, risk-taking and truth-telling. Yet it has been some time since we have seen the likes of BILAL OLIVER. His prodigious debut album 1st Born Second (Moyo Music/ Interscope), is a symbolic raising of the bar, worthy of critical examination. Herewith the work of a man born on the cusp of the eighties: the launch of MTV, Prince’s Dirty Mind, Reganomics, the digital revolution, the lingering stank of Parliament’s Motor Booty Affair (aww-aakk! aww-aaakk!), and “Rapper’s Delight”. At barely twenty-one years old, Bilal Oliver is clearly possessed with that oldest instrument: the Voice.
To wit: 1st Born Second, a work of resounding superiority, recalls Donny’s soul and Mahaila’s sanctified. Like Nina Simone, Bilal is classically trained, he in jazz and big band arrangements and opera voice. This child of hip-hop seeks to approach swing and scat with the same expansion and technique as Ella Fitzgerald. He writes his music, lyric and note. That is worth repeating: Bilal writes his music, lyric and note. Because of all these things-exquisite turns of phrase, embodiment of the feminine, and a rooted understanding of pitch, emotion and the note-that, if all goes as should in these, Bilal is surely one of the most significant artists of our changing times.
. . . But if we label this just picture what we might lose– that unexpected kiss, the feeling that brought me to you- meanwhile my feelings grow. . .
“Love Poems” produced by Bilal and Aaron Combs
After twice appearing on Common’s Like Water For Chocolate, Guru’s Jazzmatazz Street Soul, and writing and producing with kin like Erykah Badu, it is understandable that 1st Born Second is ultimately about birth, elders, and order. The lazy ear, that ill-tuned instrument, may hear brother Bilal and carelessly crown him “neo soul”-which is fine. But like that lazy, ill-tuned ear, “neo-soul” is non-specific and smothering, describing anything remotely derivative from our current embarrassingly formulaic rhythm and blues. 1st Born Second is at turns reverent and blasphemous. Ragtime and Rufus. Mardi Gras and baptisms, homecomings and homegoings. An amalgamation of field hollas and folktales, organs and weeping, brave bursts of song, heavenly choruses and truth, truth, truth.
I wish I wasn’t me sometiiiimes I wish I was drug free sometiiime ‘Wish I saw the exit sign first sometiiiiiiime Wish I knew the truth without searching sometime. . . .
I hope I live to see twenty-five sometiiiimes/ I wish I could be like Moses/ Round up my people/ Get out the ghetto sometiiiiimes/ I wish I didn’t try so hard sometiiiiiimes. . .
“Sometimes” produced by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and James Poyser
Bilal Sayeed Oliver is named so because his mother is a devout Christian and his father, orthodox Muslim. “He wanted to take my name a few times,” Bilal says, he of the church on Sunday, hell on Monday faith. Raised in Philadelphia, Bilal frequented hole-in-the-wall clubs till sunrise with aspirations of scoring film. His eventual classical training at New York City’s Mannes Music Conservatory ensured him able to sing opera in seven languages as well as an extended musical vocabulary. Bilal is a young disciple of King Tubby and Jelly Roll Morton; music of the early twenties, that pitch and swing, the bass striding on all fours. “I am fascinated by the history of our music. Jazz is a whorehouse,” Bilal says of the historical sin and salvation of the form. “The original booty shake.” Perhaps he shall silence Wynton Marsalis and those conservative keepers of institution, naysayers of today’s musical youth.
Just six years ago, at a Philly barbershop, Bilal met brothers Fa and Damu Mtume, creators of Moyo Entertainment. After hearing his demo (“I got a few songs on tape,” Bilal said then. “Nothing I’m really proud of.”), the Mtumes asked Bilal if he was interested in becoming a recording artist. Eventually Bilal moved to Brooklyn and began gigging around the city. His tape landed in the hands of Erykah Badu, for whom he appears and produces on her new album, Mama’s Gun; Common asked Bilal to write and perform (with Jill Scott) the hook for his single “Alright, Ok.” “Common called me, said we want some George Clinton shit. ‘We Want the Funk’ part two,” Bilal explains. He is now a venerable member of the collective Soul Aquarians, along with folks like Badu, Mos Def, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Q-Tip, D’Angelo. “They’re like our forefathers,” he says. “They were doing this not so long ago, but I was just coming up. I’m like their child.” Hence, 1st Born Second.
From the first single is “Soul Sista”, produced by Raphael Siddiq, to the haunting, maddening, deeper “Queen of Sanity,” to the I-Three meets LaBelle meets The Clark Sisters arrangement of “Home,” 1st Born Second is the masterpiece of a young genius.
Celebrate Bilal Oliver, people! Celebrate him with your outstretched hands. Passionately, verily. With one quiet finger raised.