12 O'Clock Track: "West Side Girl," the latest curveball from R&B singer Bilal | Bleader

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

12 O'Clock Track: "West Side Girl," the latest curveball from R&B singer Bilal

Posted By on 03.05.13 at 12:00 PM

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In the beginning of the aughts, R&B singer Bilal was making a name for himself as a member of the creatively fecund musical outfit known as the Soulquarians (which counted D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, Common, J Dilla, and members of the Roots, chiefly ?uestlove, among its members). After a prominent appearance on Common's "The 6th Sense," Bilal dropped his debut album 1st Born Second on Interscope, which featured chart-placing singles such as the Dr. Dre-produced "Fast Lane" and "Soul Sista." It received general acclaim from music critics, and Bilal seemed poised for a successful R&B career, when an all-too-familiar narrative took hold: the singer dropped an ambitious follow-up, the label shelved it, and an artist on the verge of success instead spent most of the decade in label-wrangling hell.

Bilal quietly released Airtight's Revenge on avant-pop label Plug Research in 2010, and though it went relatively under the radar, it remains one of the best R&B albums of the decade thus far. Featuring a number of tracks with asymmetrical arrangements and whirlwind rhythms, the music is as tumultuous and impassioned as the singing and lyrics, which deal with adult-slanted relationship drama, politics, and deep introspection.

The singer recently dropped his follow-up to Airtight's Revenge, A Love Surreal, on eOne. Both longer and more luxurious than its predecessor, Bilal's latest leans on slower tracks with mistier, rose-colored sounds and softer instrumentation. But it is similarly complex, approaching seemingly conventional R&B tracks from unusual angles. Take album opener "West Side Girl": Shafiq Husayn's burbling keyboards and limping percussion anchor a feathery keyboard pattern, while Bilal's singing blurts forth in snatches of miraculously congruent melodies. Channeling Prince, Bilal casually flips lascivious epigrams like "You ain't gotta talk a lick/Body talk a lot of shit" in between mostly empty come-ons. It's a weird piece of R&B from an artist who's consistently challenging the genre's language. The rest of A Love Surreal unfolds in similarly knotty fashion, and after a few listens, it's opening up. I haven't absorbed it fully yet, but I can envision it making sense in time.

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