PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Bilal: Airtight's Revenge

Bilal's long overdue follow-up is a refreshingly clear-eyed portrait of an artist in full control of his abilities.


Airtight's Revenge

Label: Plug Research
US Release Date: 2010-09-14
UK Release Date: 201-09-06
Label Website

The term "neo-soul" has been the subject of intense debate ever since Kedar Massenburg coined it as a way to market Erykah Badu's Baduizm 13 years ago. Given the way black music has been named by (usually) outsiders ever since the blues, the reaction to the name by artists who ostensibly fit into the "neo-soul" category represents a wonderful example of black self-determination in an industry that is still defiantly wedded to narrow definitions and images of black folks. Besides, the term "soul" (like "R&B", which was the original name for rock before it was appropriated and renamed) has devolved so much that it basically means "music by black people who are not pop stars and/or do not dance" and is almost completely meaningless as a descriptive term.

The downside of this rejection of the term is that the industry, which already has a hard time with unapologetic and complicated black artists, had no idea what to do with all these enormously talented individuals who rejected entire marketing campaigns designed to "break" them to the record-buying public. As such, albums were shelved or delayed or retooled and artists were dropped from major labels and forced to go it alone, making the first decade of the 21st century the least "soulful" -- however you define it -- decade for the industry itself in… well, decades.

Bilal is one of those great artists who got lost in the shuffle in the nine years since his debut album, 1st Born Second, dropped. His follow-up, Love for Sale, was famously shelved in 2006, but had it been released, it still would have been five long years after his debut. However, Bilal kept himself alive creatively and in the minds of his rabid fanbase with constant touring and collaborations with other like-minded artists.

Knowing all this, is it any wonder that Airtight's Revenge defies categorization and explanation, and is still the most thrilling release of the year? I don't say that just because it's so unapologetically non-conformist. Too often, we assume if music doesn't fall neatly into a category, then it must be "confusing" or "complex" or "too deep". Not so here. I say that this album is the most thrilling release of the year because there is no other album yet to come out this year that so forthrightly announces the presence and the virtuosity of the artist -- and is still a purely enjoyable album even if you don't care about all that craft stuff.

This is an album all about texture and musicality. Songs more than shout or intimate their ideas, they envelop you fully, so you feel the full weight of what it is Bilal is talking about. It is somewhat cliché to say that you "feel" a singer, but here you can't help but do so. That's simply what Bilal asks of you.

Take the wildly distorted rhythms and vocals that seem to collide with one another in a tense, slightly discordant harmomy on "Cake and Eat It Too". The anguish here sort of spills out of your speakers. Bilal's lead performance sounds as if he’s singing with emotion caught in his throat, like he quite literally "just can't do it again". On "Restart", the guitars create a sonic backdrop that moves in fits and starts, appropriate since Bilal is singing "You know I lost my whole direction, but it's you that I want". And then, a few tracks later on “Little One”, Bilal sings a love song to his two sons that is refreshingly open. Sample lyric: "I never wanna be a mystery to you / I’m not a god, I ain't no saint / I'm just a man workin' every day to be a better man / One day, you'll learn to be one too". And then a few tracks after that, on "Robots", he excoriates a society and government that creates nearly insurmountable odds of achieving success or happiness for the regular people.

The success of this album is directly tied to all parties involved, including great session musicians who bring these dazzling concoctions to life, an array of producers including Steve McKie, 88 Keys, Nottz, Shafiq Husayn, and Tone Whitefield who work in full partnership with Bilal to create a cohesive whole, and Bilal himself, who fronts each song with confidence and an unwavering commitment to full expression.

Ultimately, Airtight's Revenge joins Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun, Van Hunt's Popular, Meshell Ndegeocello's Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape, Rahsaan Patterson's Wines & Spirits, Joi's Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome, and Sy Smith's Conflict as a generation-defining masterwork of unflinching vision that captures the artist at the very moment in time that it is released.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.