Bilal Airtight’s Revenge Review

Released 2010.  

BBC Review

An experimental third LP, but still full of hooky, modern soul.

Louis Pattison 2010

Airtight’s Revenge marks a definite change of scenery for Philadelphia-based singer/producer Bilal Sayeed Oliver. Bilal made his debut back in 2001 with 1st Born Second, jazzy neo-soul affair that won a stack of critical praise but generally failed to convert such good will into sales. His second album, Love for Sale, met an even more inglorious end, his label Interscope choosing not to release it following its early leak on the internet.

Airtight’s Revenge lands on Plug Research, a much smaller, California-based independent label specialising in experimental electronic; it has formerly played home to the likes of Flying Lotus and Daedelus. On one hand, this represents a gentle lowering of expectation. On the other, however, it’s given Bilal space to explore what he does free of the stifling expectations of a label trying to work out what they can sell, and to whom.

The irresistible Restart suggests Bilal hasn’t altogether forgotten his talent for hooky, modern soul. Elsewhere, the result is often more experimental, albeit still steeped in the history of jazz and soul. Cake and Eat It Too cuts a stoned Sly Stone groove, a half-speed jam with languid funk guitars, Theremin-like FX and the sort of slightly off-centre lope people were recently calling "wonky". And the intriguing Levels, a co-production with Shafiq Husayn of Sa-Ra, emerges from a fog of bubbling stand-up bass, sunken piano, jazzy drums and winding G-funk keys, before a sorrowful Bilal hits the mic and leads the music to a number of soft-rocking climaxes.

Rarer in the neo-soul genre is a vocalist with something genuinely interesting to say, and Bilal has some content behind the familiar clichés. Robots hooks its hazy electronic funk to a politicised vocal about social control in the information age: "Go ask the president!" he barks. And the smooth soul of Little One emerges as a touching paean to his sons that is bare in its basic honesty. Maybe not something he could have got away with on a major, but then, you suspect that's why Airtight’s Revenge works as it does.

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