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.

"The Other Side", The Roots featuring Bilal and Greg Porn, <I>undun</i> (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.

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