It’s possible A Love Surreal couldn’t have come at a better time (though first-month sales appear to argue otherwise…) as more eyes are on the R&B field than they have been in years thanks to buzz acts Frank Ocean, The Weeknd and Miguel. Much like those artists, A Love Surreal is an album that eschews the typical trends of radio-focused R&B, opting instead for threads of psychedelia (see: Bilal’s DMT-style vocal meandering on “Climbing”), throwback mixing (“West Side Girl”, “Never Be the Same”) and subtler lyricism that doesn’t rely so much on absolutes and alcohol.
Much of A Love Surreal‘s sound can also be traced back to Los Angeles collectives SomeOthaShip and Brainfeeder. The Brainfeeder connection is fairly obvious thanks to Thundercat’s bass instantly giving the Princely “West Side Girl” a taste of Cosmogramma on the side. But oftentimes A Love Surreal also has a feel as though Georgia Anne Muldrow replaced her MPC with a full-time band, Bilal’s performance is filled with the same brand of spiritual and physical lust that trademark’s Georgia’s material.
Mix all that in with what Bilal himself brings to the table and you’ve got easily his most musically diverse offering. “Back to Love” could practically be an Anthony Hamilton ballad if it weren’t for the stabbing, driving guitar and bass that gives the song more in common with, say, Gang of Four than typical love ballads. “Right at the Core” is a straight up meditation piece, with Bilal whispering as much as singing for much of the song, revealing that a restrained Bilal sounds just as beautiful. “Slipping Away” feels like entering Oliver Stone’s mind for six minutes, trapped in a stoned, fiery sex scene between Val Kilmer and Juliette Lewis, a feeling contrasted by Bilal’s lyrics of heartbreak.
Perhaps “Lost for Now” is the oddest inclusion here. It’s certainly the biggest surprise. You could play that song for any Bilal listener and I’d bet they’d need the entire runtime to guess who performed it as it’s essentially a mid-’90s pop rock slowburn. Lyrically and melodically it’s not far off from the kind of ballad the Foo Fighters are huge proponents of; for a Bilal album that’s weird. But within Bilal’s personal history, hearing him sing “you got a smile that changes everything / can you smile one time?” just makes the heart flutter and goosebumps proliferate. It may take a while to enjoy this song, but that’s this album’s one loose-fitting moment. If any of that worries you, just skip ahead to “Never Be the Same” where an Al Green impression is waiting patiently, lovingly.
Unlike 1st Born Second, which many (including myself, I’ll add) will probably hold onto forever as Bilal’s pinnacle, A Love Surreal ultimately feels like an album completely unencumbered by expectations. There’s no comeback monkey on his back, no Soulquarians reputation to uphold and truthfully no fanbase of widespread enough import that he needs to be worried what they’re anticipating. As such, A Love Surreal is in many ways Bilal’s most laid back, comfortable affair. Without ever taking a bite, Bilal lets the dangling apple of retroism co-opted by fellows like R. Kelly, Justin Timberlake and Raphael Saadiq without allowing it to co-opt him in the process. It’s a soul singer making rock music because Bilal remembers a time when that was a fair expectation to have, before albums like his debut forever blurred the lines between rapping and throwing some stank on it.
If I managed to write a review that failed to mention “Butterfly”, it’d be a failure. Those who’ve heard 1st Born Second will recall “Second Child”, the free jazz closing number that featured Bilal on vocals and Glasper on piano essentially having a fistfight in your speakers. “Butterfly” is not only the highlight of this album but it also feels like a reaction to that. Where “Second Child” came to portend all the calamity in his personal life the past decade, “Butterfly” hopes for renewal. “Butterfly, the struggle makes you beautiful / The struggle makes you fly” he sings to himself as Boards of Canada pads and Glasper’s Ahmad Jamal-derived glinting keys provide an atmosphere worthy of reanimation.
In a very exciting year for R&B, Bilal’s very quickly made the race for album of the year an incredibly competitive one (that is, assuming you’re willing to classify this as R&B…I might not be, but I’m no member of the Recording Academy). A Love Surreal probably doesn’t have what 1st Born Second fanatics want out of the guy, but it’s plenty beautiful on its own terms.