Music

A Joy to Experience: Neo-Soul Singer Bilal Oliver

Photo from the cover of 1st Born Second (2001)

Bilal Oliver belongs to an elite class of late '90s Neo-Soul singers, but his guest appearances may be the true gems of his career.

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.

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