A Joy to Experience: Neo-Soul Singer Bilal Oliver

First comes a wiry, stuttering drum pattern, and then a series of slinky horn riffs. Within 30 seconds, a creeping, smoky, almost ghostly voice becomes the centerpiece. The song is “Cheeba”, a track from Shafiq Husayn’s 2009 LP, En’a-Free-Ka. The vocalist is the always fabulous Bilal Oliver, a musical innovator from the fabled “Neo-Soul” era of the late ’90s and early ’00s. Marked by a revival of an “old school” ’70s soul aesthetic, Neo-Soul intertwined rap, R&B, and soul into an intriguing mixture of sultry rhythms, creative arrangements, layered vocals, and edgy, eclectic lyricism. Maxwell, Amel Larrieux, D’Angelo, and Erykah Badu (and, to some extent, Me’shell Ndegeocello as well) — these artists are examples of Neo-Soul at its most potent.

Bilal Oliver also belongs to this elite class, and although his solo work (2001’s 1st Born Second, the leaked and then shelved Love for Sale, and 2010’s stellar Airtight’s Revenge) delivers plenty of material to earn him his place at the table, it’s possible that his guest appearances will long be remembered as the true gems of his career. Armed with a knack for finding just the right approach to enhance his cameos, Bilal’s collection of features could easily make an enjoyable and standalone body of work, not to mention a pretty mean playlist. Whether he’s performing a hook to a song or joining in a duet, Bilal is a tough act to follow. Besides Shafiq Husayn’s “Cheeba”, there are other appearances by Bilal that demonstrate his skill.

The Hooks

“Fallin'”, Jay-Z featuring Bilal, American Gangster (2007)

On Vh1 Storytellers, Jay-Z performed “Fallin'”, from his loosely constructed concept album inspired by the Denzel Washington-helmed film of the same name. During the performance, he called the song a “cautionary tale”, a story about the “decline” that follows unbridled success. Jay-Z’s delivery has a sing-songy flow to it, almost like a nursery rhyme, belying the tragedy described by the lyrics.

The tragedy is brought into sharper focus when Bilal does the hook, his limber vocals accompanied by a slightly faster tempo and a rushing sense of urgency. “I know I shouldn’t have did that,” Bilal sings. “I know it’s gon’ come right back.” Bilal’s sense of doom, evidenced by the line, “But this game I play, ain’t no way to fix it”, is cyclical, and he sings it so that his hook blends into the repeated word of the title, “Fallin'”.

Bilal’s voice is separate and distinct from the song, rising above the action in regretful fashion, informed by insight that is prescient and foreboding. Yet, his voice is as embedded in the song as the drum programming, part of the moody fabric woven into Jay-Z’s narrative. About the song, Jay-Z, during the live performance, said, “This is what would have happened if I hadn’t become Jay-Z. This is Shawn Carter’s story.” Bilal’s hook drives the point home.

“Looking Up”, Hezekiah featuring Bilal (2007)

Bilal opens this track with a gospel inflection, singing out, fully, wholly, and layered. There’s a hopefulness to these vocals that simply does not exist in Jay-Z’s “Fallin’.” And why should it? In “Fallin'”, the emphasis was on the downward spiral of greed and excess. Here, the emphasis is on making the best of a bad situation, finding hope amid struggle. Interestingly, it’s not about finding strength from struggle, as is sometimes the message in songs that find resonance in how adversity builds character.

No, this is about bringing the struggle to an end. “I’ve been struggling for so long,” Bilal sings, “but something keeps tellin’ me ‘keep on lookin’ up’.” Hezekiah, an experienced but underrated lyricist, lets his verses skip across the plodding rhythm and shimmying bassline, his delivery exuding the rays of inspiration his words are crying out for. Bilal’s guest spot absolutely steals the show here, swaying across the track like church folk at an old time revival, as refreshing as a cold glass of lemonade on a sweltering day.

“Nightmares”, Clipse featuring Bilal and Pharrell Williams, Hell Hath No Fury (2006)

“I’m havin’ nightmares,” Bilal begins this song, even before the percussion begins, like a lingering doubt floating through one’s mind before it is anchored by reality. This song, though, is what happens when you realize the “reality” is just as bad as your paranoia would lead you to believe.

Bilal’s hook is embellished by an introduction to the verses, setting the mood with the protagonist’s paranoia (“When I go outside, I feel somethin’ behind me / I’m lookin’ back but nothin’s around me”). Something is “lurkin’ in the shadows” and it’s “starin’ through the darkness”, and there are “four walls” closing in on him. Bilal’s voice is in a higher key than in Hezekiah’s “Lookin’ Up”, casting an angelic sound over the haunted feeling described by the verses. This is where Bilal’s guest appearances typically shine, in his ability to provide contrast between his vocals and the song’s message. Fortunately, that contrast tends to illuminate the message rather than undermine it.

Apart from Bilal’s stellar vocals, “Nightmares” is noteworthy for its homage to Geto Boys’s “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me”, not only through the song’s themes of paranoia but also through the lyrics that interpolate Willie D’s original verse. The difference, though, is that where the Geto Boys’s tune was about paranoia that often turned out to be unfounded, “Nightmares” describes threats that seem credible, at least to the narrators. The Geto Boys were aware that they were coming unglued by their circumstances. In “Nightmares”, our heroes seem to be rationalizing their actions, at least in part.

“The Other Side”, The Roots featuring Bilal and Greg Porn, undun (2011)

“The Other Side” is quite possibly the dopest song in the bunch. The hard hitting drum beat is as reliable as the strongest heartbeat but, like any heartbeat, it can be extinguished in an instant. “The Other Side” sits at the midpoint of the Roots’s album undun, a reverse-chronological concept album about the life and ultimate demise of character Redford Stephens. Bilal strikes out at the heart of the song and, therefore, at the heart of the album as a whole, with his earnest vocals. “We’re all on a journey,” he belts out, “down the hall of memories.” He sounds completely absorbed and invested in his work here, and the rapping from emcee Black Thought is as focused and inspired as anything the Roots has produced.

“Waiting for the DJ”, Talib Kweli featuring Bilal, Quality (2002)

In case anyone is wondering whether Bilal can do a lighthearted piece, Talib Kweli’s “Waiting for the DJ” provides a great example. As is Bilal’s habit, the song opens with Bilal’s hook, which includes the title and a club goer’s wish to “let your body rock” when the DJ finally arrives. Talib Kweli’s flow is characteristically swift, fleet of tongue, and filled with analogies, so rather than picking up the pace on the hook, Bilal’s entries work to slow things down, panting. When the party has been pumping and fun is in the air, Bilal’s hook reminds me of a party goer waiting for the action to begin anew, a quick breather that will allow just enough of a refuel to make it to the end of the DJ’s next song.

This flight of amusement might be viewed as a bit of a departure from what people usually associate with Talib Kweli as well, although Kweli takes it all very serious and in a somewhat high minded fashion: “Music is the air I breathe… it’s stronger than the revolution that you wear on your sleeve.” Bilal’s vocals create an airiness for the proceedings, making Kweli’s syllable-packing verses a touch less claustrophobic, and perhaps assisting Kweli in fashioning a credible pop-oriented tune that retains its soulfulness and authentic hip-hop lean.

The Duets

“Cosmic Journey”, Solange featuring Bilal, Sol-Angel & the Hadley St. Dreams (2008)

Destiny’s other child, Solange Knowles, scored a sweet victory in 2008, not only for overshadowed siblings everywhere but for R&B in general. Her slightly underrated jewel, Sol-Angel & the Hadley St. Dreams, found Beyonce’s younger sister hitting her stride with confident vocals and lush instrumentation. I say the album is “slightly” underrated, because many outlets, critics, and fans enjoyed the work, just not to the extent that it might have been received with, say, a little more promotion.

Solange and Bilal perform this duet as a tag team. Over a sidestepping rhythm — that is, when there’s an actual beat and not a swirl of synthesizer effects — the track is breezy, ethereal, and otherworldly. There’s plenty of echo in this tune, which does give it a “cosmic” feel, and it’s not overdone so as to get in the way or drown the vocals. This time around, Bilal is more of an assistant than a scene stealer. He’s mellow but engaged, following Solange’s lead without being mistaken for passive. In short, he’s a dynamic supporter. He gives a subdued performance without sounding like he’s on autopilot.

“Everything I Do”, Beyonce & Bilal, Fighting Temptations soundtrack (2003).

Before little sis sang with Bilal, big sister Beyonce performed a duet with him for the Fighting Temptations soundtrack. That duet, the song “Everything I Do”, is probably too good to be associated with the film, which isn’t that great, but at least the soundtrack provided a vehicle for the song’s release. Beyonce appears in quite a few of the soundtrack tunes, largely because she also appears in the film, so having her participate in the soundtrack is a natural choice.

“Everything I Do” finds Bilal offering one of his smoothest deliveries yet, which matches the smoothness of Beyonce’s voice and tone. Their duet is overlapping, as they seem to be climbing over each other to sing each successive line. Overlapping and intertwined, the vocal arrangement portrays the voices as belonging to lovers who are eager and willing to please. This strikes me as the type of song Amel Larrieux would have made when she was in Groove Theory. It also show’s Bilal’s softer, more romantic side, and adds dimension to what he’s capable of doing.

“I Can’t Wait”, Jaguar Wright featuring Bilal, Denials, Delusions & Decisions (2002)

If “Everything I Do” is romantic, then “I Can’t Wait” is carnal, and less delicate. “I can’t wait…to get my hands on you,” goes the chorus. If that doesn’t tell the tale, then the message is certainly made clear when Bilal sings, “Here I am, drawers in hand / Housewife gone, think she won’t be back ’til 10 am.” His voice quivers with anticipation, which enhances the sexy vibe of the track, and also complements Jaguar Wright’s vocals. The accompanying music has that knocking Linn Drum sound that everyone associates with Prince’s songs in the ’80s.

Bilal sounds pretty great over this stuff, which makes me wonder how he would fare with a set of Prince tunes to cover. In fact, I’ve even considered a playlist. Give him some material from 1999 (“Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)”, “International Lover”), Purple Rain (“The Beautiful Ones”, “Darling Nikki”, a slower version of “When Doves Cry”), a few things from Diamonds & Pearls (“Insatiable”, “Strollin'”) — something along those lines might work nicely.

“Overwhelmed”, Daedelus featuring Bilal, Bespoke (2011)

Daedelus’s Bespoke struck me as “good” but not “great”. As 2011 moved forward, however, one of the album’s tracks, the Bilal assisted “Overwhelmed”, grew on me more and more. I always considered it an album highlight, but lately I’ve come to regard it as something of a minor masterpiece. The whole thing just falls all over itself with drum rolls, which cascade in and out of the songs like crashing tidal waves, accompanied by this really wonky upward and downward scale of synthesizer.

In the midst of this comes Bilal, gently worming his way through all of the fuzz and circumstance, and honestly turning in one of his best vocal performances beneath the layers. This song isn’t good — it’s “great”, and the only thing wrong with it is that it’s too short and I wish it had more to say lyrically. Originally, I wished the song didn’t fade so we could hear where it goes, and I still feel that way. I’m not a fan of the fade, here.

“The Way You Are”, Zap Mama featuring BilalReCreation (2009)

When you hear the guitar strumming at the beginning of this song, it’s easy to imagine this song as an album closer to a set of Bilal cameos. This must have been a difficult duet to pull off, since Zap Mama’s Marie Daulne has a distinctive singing voice in her own right. Here, Bilal figures out how he can match her Eartha Kitt-ish delivery amid piano twinkles and a steady methodical rhythm. The song is so layered and dense with scats and moans and intonations, there’s hardly any room for negative space. It’s an intimate tune, best enjoyed when listening to headphones. It is breathy, deliberate, and full of blissful echoes and soulful bellows.

Like nearly all of Bilal’s output, it’s a joy to experience.