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.