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.

"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.

Prev Page


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

Raashan Ahmad Talks With PopMatters About His Place in 'The Sun'

On his latest work,The Sun, rapper Raashan Ahmad brings his irrepressible charisma to this set of Afrobeat-influenced hip-hop.

Music

Between the Buried and Me's Baby Pictures Star in 'The Silent Circus'

The Silent Circus shows Between the Buried and Me developing towards the progressive metal titans they would eventually become.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Music

Vistas' 'Everything Changes in the End' Is Catchy and Fun Guitar Rock

Vistas' debut, Everything Changes in the End, features bright rock music that pulls influences from power-pop and indie rock.

Film

In Amy Seimetz's 'She Dies Tomorrow', Death Is Neither Delusion Nor Denial

Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow makes one wonder, is it possible for cinema to authentically convey a dream, or like death, is it something beyond our control?

Music

The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.

Books

John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.

Music

Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.

Music

Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.

Books

Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.

Music

Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.

Film

Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.

Television

Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.

Film

Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".

Music

The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

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