Call it the Kendrick Effect: the work of a modern-day Midas whose every collaborator seems to be producing some of the best work of their respective careers. Indeed, 2015 seems to be the year of the Kendrick Lamar sphere of influence. From Kamasi Washington’s masterpiece The Epic, Thundercat’s recent The Beyond/Where Giants Roam to Lamar’s own transcendent To Pimp a Butterfly, nearly everyone associated with the young rapper is hitting a creative peak. Add to that Bilal, whose In Another Life may well prove to be one of, if not the best R&B albums of the year.
Working with 1970s-inspired producer and arranger Adrian Younge (who also plays nearly every instrument on the album) theirs is a modernist take on the genre that uses that decade’s more outré R&B albums as a starting point for their eclectic funk and soul. But rather than a straight stylistic retread, his is more indebted to those jazz musicians who sought to cross over to the R&B audience with complex renderings of a generally straightforward genre. Mixing in elements of Stevie Wonder, Prince, Roy Ayers, Marvin Gaye, and a host of others, Bilal and Younge transcend mere pastiche, having crafted a set that sounds of a piece with the best the genre has to offer.
From the opening, deep-in-the-pocket drum groove of “Sirens II” through to the balladic shuffle of closing track “Bury Me Next to You”, Bilal and Younge prove themselves to be some of the best contemporary musicians the genre has to offer. Having built a consistently strong, if somewhat erratic, catalog, this is the album to which Bilal’s last several releases was building. In teaming up with Younge, himself on an impressive hot streak, Bilal has found the perfect foil in presenting his retro-futurist take on soul music.
Throughout In Another Life’s 40-minute run time, traces of the past mingle seamlessly with a decidedly 21st century take on the genre. On “Money Over Love”, he channels Curtis Mayfield’s social message music in both tone and temperament, augmented by an effortless falsetto. The aforementioned Lamar tears through a verse that opens up the song in an impressively aggressive manner that brings the track fully into the present. Elsewhere, “Pleasure Toy” essentially borrows wholesale “Sexual Healing”s electronic drum pattern so much so that, when the vocals do come in it’s somewhat startling to not hear Marvin Gaye’s classic.
But given the quality of Bilal’s performance, not to mention the myriad voices he employs throughout, these moments function as little more than allusions; homages to the masters within whose company Bilal will likely one day find himself. “Open Up the Door” is a modern day classic, one of many on the album. Full of loose, strutting drums, trebly bass, gorgeous harmonies, and the requisite electric piano, it evokes the best of Stevie Wonder’s mid-‘70s recordings.
“I Really Don’t Care” manages a throwback aesthetic that feels far more genuine than Leon Bridges’ recent foray into similar territory. Where the latter relies on a surface aesthetic to convey an air of vintage soul, Bilal proves himself capable of a complete and total immersion that goes beyond mere posturing. Rather than simply wearing the clothes to match the sound of an era, Bilal so fully inhabits the period of late ‘60s/early ‘70s smooth soul he seeks to replicate it can be hard not believing “I Really Don’t Care” to be a lost gem from the era.
Proving himself equally adept at high-energy, unhinged funk, he returns to his borderline deranged Prince-esque vocal persona on the appropriately titled “Lunatic”. Spitting and squealing his way through the track with its club-footed drum beat and psychedelic garage soul instrumental backing, it stands in sharp contrast to the album’s more subdued moments. But this wild diversity helps keep In Another Life’s sense of vitality alive. More than a mere soul retread, it’s a vital document from two of the most gifted, albeit idiosyncratic, performers R&B currently has to offer. Kendrick Effect or no, In Another life is a future classic.