A Pimp for Soul: Bilal's 1st Born Second
One way to comprehend Miles is to view him not simply as an isolated mad genius but also a product of a distinctive aspect of African-American culture—what me might call the pimp aesthetic . . . I’m not suggesting that he needed to be a real pimp to embrace the aesthetic. Rather, he was the product of a masculine culture that aspired to be like a pimp, that embraced the cool performative styles of the players (pronounced “playa”), the “macks,” the hustlers, who not only circulated in the jazz world but whose walk and talk also drew from the well of black music.
—Robin D. G. Kelley
Yea,Yea,Yea You know, they call me a pimp, and you know what that means I’m a Person that’s Making Profit. See I pimp internationally. I’m nationally recognized, locally accepted. I pimp with the truth, that’s the only method
—Common, “A Film Called Pimp”
As a matter of fact I’m the dopest nigga you ever wanted to fuck with . . .
—Bilal, “For You”
The title of Bilal Sayeed Oliver’s stunning debut 1st Born Second is derived from the concept that he was the “first born prodigal son of the second generation of contemporary soul stirrers”. We all know the usual suspects: Badu, D’Angelo, L-Boogie, Jilly from Philly, Mos Def, N’degeocello, Maxwell and the original new-schooler Lenny “how come black radio don’t support me?” Kravitz. But Bilal could be the second coming of the playa, playa, pimp—pimping like Marvin (the original Soul O.G.), Big pimping like Rev. Al (before that grit incident), “diamond in the back, sunroof top, digging the scene with the gangsta lean” pimping like Miles Dewey. Bilal, the playa, playa pimp for the new millennium. By pimping, I mean the ability to “pimp” from the deepness of a black masculinity that is alternately virile, vibrant, visceral, viscous and vicarious. Like that pimp-scholar Too Short reminded us some time ago: “Pimpin; ain’t easy.”
In his “controversial” New York Times piece on Miles Davis, Robin D.G. Kelley, writes that “Pimps in African-American culture and folklore are more than violent exploiters of women. They are masters of style, from the language and the stroll to the clothes and the wheels,” adding that pimps have also been recognized for their “storytelling ability”. Bilal claims as much with his intro boast, “Now ladies unwind / Feel the motion of a Mack / I’m like warm lotion on your back / Damn, now that feels good / What better way to sweat / Stay wet / Then to tune into some of this. Univer-soul / You know what it is / It’s platinum baby”. There is no doubt that the image of Miles Davis flowing lovely in those Hickey Freeman suits became a template for 1950s cool and that Marvin Gaye remains the quintessential Soul Mack (“you know how it is Mack come in the club”) for almost two generations of vocalists ranging from Spandau Ballet (“listening to Marvin . . . all night long”) to Rafael Saddiq. With 1st Born Second Bilal aims to draw upon the richness of black masculine expression, in the process creating one of the most provocative and wide ranging expressions of black masculinity in popular music since Prince’s 1982 classic Controversy.
Ever since Bilal “dry humped” the stage at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) at a 1999 tribute to Prince, references to his Prince-like qualities have flourished. But these references do not do justice to an artist whose music and style draws upon a wide range of artists including Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, the enigmatic Sly Stone, Pete Rock and CL Smooth, King Pleasure, Langston Hughes, pre-pop Kool & the Gang, Dr. Dre, Miles Davis and of course Prince. At so many points during 1st Born Second Bilal sounds like a contortionist trying to squeeze every ounce of Philly (blunt) Soul out of his scrawny little body, a body that betrays the immensity of Bilal’s talent and heart. As one of my boys put it when he first glimpsed Bilal’s “Soul Sista” video, he though that Musiq Soulchild had been in the gym and lost some weight. No offense to Bilal’s Philly soul brother, but the comparisons end, empathically, there. So do those that align Bilal with D’Angelo. Comparisons of Bilal to D’Angelo are natural given the artits’ proximity to Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson’s SoulQuarian universe. Like D’Angelo’s Voodoo, 1st Born Second, may have been the most anticipated and oft-delayed release in recent R&B history. At one point the on-line vendor CDNOW jokingly listed the release date of 1st Born Second as the year 2025.
Jokie-jokes aside, Bilal’s debut was challenged by consumer apathy, not in the sense that folks weren’t interested in the project’s lead singles “Soul Sista” and “Love It”, but in the sense that audiences for the most part were unable or more likely unwilling to distinguish Bilal from the likes of Musiq, D’Angelo and others. As Bilal suggested in an interview with Jim Farber, “people don’t have a lot of common sense when it comes to music. They don’t know the history and they don’t listen”. While Bilal’s comments may suggest some derision and condescension towards the audience that will ostensibly help him achieve that “platinum, baby” level he desires, it is also the comments of an artist who put a great deal of himself into his art and was forced to watch the release of that art delayed because of his label’s sensitivity to consumer laziness. Case in point 1st Born Second was pushed back from a late June release to accommodate the promotion of the b-side of “Love It”, the Dr. Dre. produced “Fast Lane”. It was the mark of Dre that pushed Bilal beyond the neo-soul promised land and (back) onto the plantations of urban radio. A new version of the song was remixed featuring a cameo by Jadakiss.
In 1998 Bilal was attending the Mannes Conservatory of Music in New York City and singing jazz once a week at the Sidewalk Café, where Aaron Combs of the Spin Doctors was the house drummer. A tape of tracks that Bilal recorded at Combs’ home studio was passed on to Ali Shaheed Muhammad (A Tribe Called Quest) with copies eventually touching the hands of Q-Tip, ?uestlove, and Common. A year later Bilal was singing backup for D’Angelo and after he made Prince’s “International Lover” a Bilal song at the BAM tribute, the vocalist was signed to Moyamusic, an imprint of Jimmy Iovine’s Interscope label. The imprint label was founded by Damu Fa Mtume, who are the male progeny of the musician and trenchant social critic James Mtume who fronted the seminal ‘80s R&B group Mtume as well as serving a member of the Miles Davis Band in the mid-1970s.
Most audiences were first made aware of Bilal courtesy of his breathtaking backing vocals on Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, most notably on the track “Funky for You”, where he and Jill Scott tag an two-minute old-school soul shout at the close of the track. Later in the spring of 2000 an early version of “Soul Sista” appeared on the soundtrack of the Gina Prince-Bythewood film Love and Basketball. Co-written with daddy Mtume, who also orchestrated KC Hailey’s remake of Bobby Womack’s “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” a few years ago, and produced by Rafael Saddiq, “Soul Sista” is a slow gospel march that would have caught the attention of listeners in any era, if only because Bilal’s layered falsettos that recall the energy of Joe Cocker at Woodstock. A more finished version of the song with additional backing vocals was released with a provocative black and white video in the fall of last year. According to the artist, the track began as a freestyle.
In an industry that increasingly finds value in accessibility, “Soul Sista” took a backseat to Musiq’s quaint “Just Friends (Sunny)”. While Musiq’s debut Aijuswanaseing was lauded as the rebirth of Philly Soul, Bilal awaited the release of a second single. It was the second single “Love It” that heightened anticipation for 1st Born Second, with a video that ironically borrowed some flavor from Musiq’s “Sunny”. The track was produced by Mike City, who has produced a string to quality releases with Carl Thomas’ “I Wish”, Dave Hollister’s “One Woman Man”, and of course the round-tha-way baby-girl, Sunshine Anderson. “Love It”, again highlights Bilal’s striking falsetto, especially in the song’s chorus.
According to critic Raquel Cepeda, the ever so masculine Sisqo purportedly claimed that Bilal sounded “like a woman” on the track. Someone should sit the masculine one down with a stack of vocals by Eddie Kendricks, Phillip Bailey (he of the three elements, EWF), Ted Mills (Blue Magic), and of course (Little) Jimmy Scott. Whereas “falsetto” vocalists have been perceived as being “soft”-think of Tico Wells’ “Choir Boy” in the Robert Townsend film The Five Heartbeats. In reality the falsetto voice is the product of hypermasculine performance, be it derived from the regular Reverend Mack-daddy infomercial circuit-inspired no doubt by the original “playa-revs” like Ike, Father Devine, and “sweet” Daddy Grace-or the brothers flexing for real in HBO’s Pimps Up, Hoes Down. Like Russell Simmons puts it in his forthcoming autobiography Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money, and God, “People don’t understand this now but the high-pitched falsetto, crying singers were the most ghetto . . . For all their talk of love there was something very pimp-like, manipulative and fly about that sound.”
In other words, you got to be mackin’ fo’ real if you gonna step to some honey in one of them high-pitched voices that send the roaches scurrying before the lights come on. Again recalling the pimpery that my man R. Kelley (that’s Robin not Robert) associated with the music of “Dewey”, the falsetto voice was part of an elaborate black oral form known as toasting. According to Kelley, “Toasts, like sermons, are judged by delivery, phrasing, pacing and a sense of dynamics, which often includes the use of falsetto voice, whispering and artfully placed pauses to elicit “call and response” with audience”. As sure as there is much “big pimpin’” taking place on Sunday mornings in pulpits where the flow is as important as the message. Think of Aresenio Hall’s performance as Rev Brown in Coming to America. There are enough Negrotarians and members of the neo-soul bourgeoisie that take offense to such performative antics. Nevertheless the cream-cash and lubricant flows, as Bilal reminds us throughout 1st Born Second. And it is about flow, the kinds of social flow that lead to social and cultural capital, the kind of flow that allows Jay Z into various social arenas as “Hova,” Jigga, and Shawn Carter (It’s big pimpin’ baby!). Flow like Eddie Cain, Jr’s (Michael Wright) straight gangsta quip to a rival pretty boy “How does it feel to be me?”, a line that remains the most memorable from The Five Heartbeats. Thus, it is not surprising that the two cuts in which Bilal’s pimp-flow (falsetto) is most prominent are the Dre produced “Fast Lane” and the project’s opening track “For You”.
Written by Bilal “For You” is like a dreamy stuttered pimp-stroll through South Philly, replete with the kind of sinister bass (bassoon) lines that Marcus Miller used so effectively on Miles Davis’ Tutu and later on the soundtrack for the film Siesta. Mid-way through the second verse, Bilal disarms listeners with a double speed falsetto (“and this might sound like some pimp shit to you , but I ain’t pimping please forgive me if I appear to. I just a nigga that says what it means”) racing through the lyrics with an urgency that implies the passion in which he repudiates the pimp-life on the real, while wholly recognizing its power-game recognizing game. In the song’s bridge Bilal literally pleads—more preacher than pimp—“Come to the Light. Cause You could be a star . . . ” suggesting that as a lover, he would dote on his boo like a pimp dotes on his “hoes.”
On the Dre-produced “Fast Lane” which was written with the Mtume brothers and Mike City, Bilal examines the underside of the pimp life, however “fresh and clean” it may be . . . In what is a regular occurrence throughout 1st Born Second, Bilal’s vocals literally explode and splatter across Dre’s soundscape, particular on the track’s chorus where he sings, “Living in the fast lane . . . when you pimping through life / Seems some people get caught up / In some charges brought up / For some people they shot up.” With a minor nod to P-funk—later a straight up jack on the Dre produced “Sally”—“Fast Lane,” is one of the most effective thematic tributes (“its too late for him now, laying out on the ground so cold”) to Curtis Mayfield’s cautionary “Freddie Dead” which was first released nearly 30 years ago and has yet to lose any on its power.
Like his narrative interpolation of Curtis Mayfield, Bilal throws a nod or two to some of his musical influences. On the J-dilla (that Detroit “nigga,” Jay Dee whose Welcome to Detroit is some next level hip-hop production) produced “Reminisce” which features Mos Def and Common, Bilal re-flows Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s “T.R.O.Y. (They Reminisce Over You)”. Common’s first foray into writing love songs “Reminisce” is an infectious slice of ghetto love recalled (“years ago in the midst of hallways and sliding doors / The missing link, a very very obscure / Vision of you shined, but only for a short time”). Bilal throws some luv towards Robert Nesta Marley and the original “ghetto” poet Langston Hughes on “Home” which is one of two tracks that was wholly written and produced by Bilal himself. Recalling Marley’s “One Love” and “One Drop”, Bilal’s sluggish production is rescued by his exquisite vocals. Bilal even manages to replicate the way Marley often playfully self-answered questions with a raspy growl (“Will I see heaven again? I don’t even know, I don’t even know . . .”). The brilliance of the song’s lyric, which animate a mythical African homeland with “streets . . . paved with gold” lies in Bilal’s subtle revision of Langston Hughes’ “I Have Known Rivers”. Whereas Hughes wrote that his “soul runs deep like rivers”, Bilal sings “Won’t even talk about it / Won’t even talk about it / It’s all too deep my soul” at once referencing Hughes legendary tome, while also acknowledging that such a vision remains just that for the generation “first born seconds.”
As rivers go, listeners are baptized in the “church of Bilal” on the track “Slyde”, a clever spin on what the church folks call “back slidin’”, which begins with a reference to Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” and intimates the music of Sly Stone (“Everyday People”). Recalling Prince’s struggles with naming his emotions on the track “Adore” (“love is too weak to describe how much I adore you..”), itself a spin on Stevie Wonder’s “As” (“Loving you / Until the day that you are me and I am you / Now ain’t that lovin’ You?”), Bilal can ultimately only admit to his boo that “I’m just so fuckin’ in love with you / I just can’t verberate that shit into words . . . ” Though Bilal’s purported attempt to remake “Adore” never materialized, “Slyde” allows Bilal to comment on a musical trajectory that begins with Sly Stone, passes through Stevie Wonder, Bootsy Collins (“Bootzilla, baby”), the pre-JT Taylorized Kool and the Gang, and Prince.
Some of the most original tracks of 1st Born Second are those that feature Bilal’s classically trained jazz vocal sensibilities. As Bilal reflected in an interview with USA Today, “Most things I do are either instrumental or I’m thinking of some jazz cats.” On “All That I Am (Something for the People),” co-written with Common, Bilal’s vocals are equal part Eddie Jeffreson (“Filthy McNasty”), King Pleasure (“Moody’s Mood for Love”), The Pharcyde, and Bilal himself, mixed in with name drops of ghetto-realists Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim. Again, Bilal’s focus on the “pimp life” and the violence and misogyny inherent to it—Goines and Slim were largely responsible for making “the pimp life” nationally known in the early 1970s—is not simply in celebration of that life, but given his jazz training is an acknowledgement of the ways that hustling is deeply connected to the improvisatory spirit found in many jazz performances. Though “Love Poems” is solidly within the tradition of Philly’s current spoken word movement, with a hint of the EWF/Ramsey Lewis collaboration “Sun Goddess”, the song is taken to another level with Bilal’s Ornette Coleman-ish scatting behind the poetry of Jill Scott, in an un-credited cameo performance.
Bilal’s jazz skills are particularly evident on the tracks “When Will You Call” and the mind-bending “Sometimes”, which both allow Bilal to examine improvisation within the context of the breezy jarring uncertainties that often accompany romantic relationships. Written by Bilal, “When Will You Call” begins with a cheesy blues intro in which Bilal laments that his woman hadn’t called him in three days. What begins as a camp blues number is shortly transformed into a spacious mature jazz vocal. “When Will You Call” recalls the “Days of Wine and Roses” style pop-jazz of the 1960s done by artists such as Johnny Hartman, Nancy Wilson, and Barbara Streisand, but with a harder edge as he sings on the song’s bridge “No notice, no letter, you just packed your shit and left.” By the song’s end-like Luther Vandross, Bilal is a finisher-what had been an in-joke about the “miserable blues,” had become a vibrant performance of recovery and resistance (“gotta to start a new life without you . . .”).
While Jay Dee’s production (for the SoulQuarians) on “Reminisce” are firmly with the best hip-hop production, fellow SoulQuarian James Poyser, buoyed by “?uestlove’s” stuttering stop and start rhythms, imbues “Sometimes” with a fertile musical landscape to fully realize Bilal’s stream of consciousness lyrics. The track begins with an introduction reminiscent of Mos Def’s brilliant “Umi Says,” abruptly shifting gears as Bilal addresses his personal demons and contradictions (“Sometimes, I wish I wasn’t me / Sometimes, I wish I was drug free / Sometimes, wish I saw the exit sign first / Sometimes, wish I knew the truth without searching”) and to complain about the one-sided nature of his relationship. Bilal’s quest for life affirming answers (Sometimes I wish I could go where I never been, seen what I never saw, do what I never did . . . “) is distracted by his “selfish” girlfriend. In a darkly comical moment, Bilal grudgingly admits, “Sometimes, you got me wishing I didn’t have home training, sometimes / Then it wouldn’t hurt me so bad, when I dream of knockin’ you on your ass / Then it wouldn’t hurt me so bad, when I visualize a foot up your ass.” As Bilal purges himself of his romantic frustration, he begin to refocus on the larger questions suggesting that “Sometimes, I hope I live to see 25 / Sometimes, I wish I could, be like Moses, round up my people, move out the ghetto and live a better life.” The shifting logic of the political and the personal in the song collapses into a gospel-driven frenzy that urgently resists the kind of holy ghost climax that finds the “converted” possessed by the spirits. It is at this point that the listener understands that Bilal see his dysfunctional relationship as an impediment to his spiritual goals as exhorts himself to “the sun is in your hair, playa, move at your own pace, listen to your own, mind, do your own thing.” Bilal tells his lover that he was brutally honest with her (earlier in the song), “because I love ya / And I want to grow with you, but you want to run in the other direction, so I got to stay on my path until I win, I win, I win . . . I’m gonna win, I’m gonna win.” It is with Bilal’s acknowledgement he is “gonna win” that the songs flattens out and evokes the spiritual focus that Bilal desires throughout the song. The song ends with Bilal singing “I have no doubt. I have no fear” punctuated with a minute long (wah wah) scat which suggest a harmonious reality.
The conceptual immensity of Bilal’s “Sometimes” is only matched by the project’s closing track “Second Child” (a nod to Hughes’ “Genius Child”?). The track, which was written during a time when the artist was deeply immersed in the music of Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis (On the Corner), strips away the romantic prestige of the pimp/hustler lifestyle evoking a gritty, tragic and surreal urban landscape. The grating discord and dissonance of the song are deliberately meant to alarm and provoke listeners. The song begins with an autobiographical narrative from a “second child” that was “born in the closet with her clothes still on/smothered in the seat of her pants.” According to the second child “I was born as a second child. All I got was hand-me downs. All there is, is what was left.” In an interview Bilal admits that the song was his reaction to “watching the news everyday and seeing all the injustice that’s still happening to blacks.” Whereas the song is an explicit critique of social injustice and poverty in America’s inner cities, the “second child” theme of the song’s implicit suggest a failure on the part of previous generations to “provide” for its generational children. Bilal’s lyric “I’m a second class citizen spawned by kings, but who can spot that nation now” highlight the irony that while previous generation have provided a fertile artistic legacy, there continue to be those who are subjected to misery and squalor despite the efforts of those generations. The explosive cacophony of the song’s latter half correlates to the “accumulation of anger . . . built up inside” the artist.
“Second Child” suggests that there is a significant upside to the 22-year-old artist. No doubt Bilal has only scratched the surface of his talents. More accomplished than Prince’s For You and D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar and on par with Terence Trent Darby’s Introducing the Hardline, Dionne Farris’ Wild Seed Wild Flower and The Notorious B.I.G.‘s Ready to Die, in my mind 1st Born Second is one of the most significant debuts in black pop during the past 25 years.