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Born at the Right Time

Bilal Stakes His Place in the R&B Revival

By Vincent Williams | Posted 8/1/2001

The battle goes well. BET is playing a few videos worth watching. The urban radio station doesn't have to be switched off quite as quickly. For the first time in almost a decade, adult music fans have a reason to peek at the R&B section of the record store. While R&B isn't exactly going through a renaissance, the signal-to-noise ratio is certainly moving in the right direction. Bilal's debut album, 1st Born Second, continues the trajectory, the slow but steady transfer of the "alternative" to the norm.

Since the Organ Lick Heard 'Round the World, D'Angelo's 1995 hit "Brown Sugar," a host of young musicians has embraced the traditional instrumentation and organic musicality that's been missing from African-American pop music for decades.(That is, besides for a short period in the late '80s/early '90s when acts like Teddy Riley, Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, and, quietly, Bell Biv Devoe introduced hip-hop sounds into R&B.) Call these neo-soul artists "black bohemians" or, as notorious Philadelphia DJ Wendy Williams affectionately refers to them, "the dirty-backpack clique"--since D'Angelo's debut, the movement has been growing. It's unlikely that Amel Larrieux, India.Arie, and Maxwell meet together to plot the revolution, but they and their ilk have enough of a common sensibility that it's appropriate to link them.

Considering the neo-soulsters collectively is easy because they know each other and work together. In fact, it's apropos that a Philly DJ coined a name for the movement, because the sun at the center of its solar system is Philadelphia-based musician/producer/mastermind Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. Comparing the bios of neo-soul artists is like playing Six Degrees of Questlove. In addition to holding down the drum stool for hip-hop crew the Roots, Questlove is D'Angelo's drummer and has done production work on both of Erykah Badu's albums. The mighty Jill Scott co-wrote the Roots' 1999 hit, "You Got Me," and has toured with them. Scott and Musiq Soulchild have both employed the A Touch of Jazz production team. And India.Arie shouts out to Musiq in her album's credits.

Fellow Philadelphia native Bilal is definitely locked into this orbit; the trail his demo tape left intersects with a Who's Who of Neo-Soul. A Tribe Called Quest DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad heard the tape and played it for his Lucy Pearl bandmate and Tony! Toni! Toné! alumnus Raphael Saadiq. Q-Tip copped a copy and played it for Questlove, who gave it to Common. After Badu heard it, she got Bilal to produce and perform on her second album, 2000's Mama's Gun; he went on to serve as a backup singer for D'Angelo. But Bilal's real coming-out party was the Questlove-organized 1999 concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, late in the year in question, at which various artists performed cuts from Prince's landmark album. Bilal destroyed "International Lover" and piqued the interest of many critics and fans. Not long after, he showed up on several tracks on Common's Questlove-produced Like Water for Chocolate, further entrenching him in the neo-soul camp.

Some artists bristle at market-driven efforts to label or compartmentalize them, but Bilal enjoys his genre identification. According to his own publicity material, the title of his debut album references his status as "first-born prodigal son of the second generation of contemporary soul stirrers," like D'Angelo and Scott. Bilal embraces this musical heritage on 1st Born Second--something that's mostly a blessing, but also a little bit of a curse.

There are so many wonderful sounds and songs on 1st Born Second that it's difficult to know where to begin. The first single, "Soul Sista," produced by Saadiq, perfectly captures Bilal's sensuality and moaning falsetto as he oozes over a nasty bass guitar. His spirituality and openness shine through on the gospel-tinged "Sometimes," produced by James Poyser and Questlove. Above Questlove's authoritative drum rolls and a plaintive organ, Bilal addresses some of the fears and doubts everyone faces ("Sometimes/ I wish I wasn't me . . . sometimes/ I wish I was drug free . . . sometimes/ I wish I knew the truth without hurt"). Other highlights include the celebratory "All That I Am," the melancholy "When Will You Call," and the reggae-flavored "Home."

Still, even though the music is performed magnificently, even though Bilal wrote all the music and lyrics, the production is similar enough to other neo-soul that D'Angelo could have sung many of the songs. And the album suffers from a certain amount of celebrity-producer overload; sundry sounds and styles bump into each other from track to track and, in the worst moments, threaten to bury Bilal's unique voice. The Dr. Dre-produced "Fast Lane" sounds like something any of the R&B stars du jour could put out, and Dre's signature ominous keyboard work and heavy drum-machine beats drown out the singer. The other misstep is the Jay Dee-produced "Reminisce," featuring Common and Mos Def, in apparent fealty to the bylaw that Common and/or Mos Def must contribute guest rhymes at least once per neo-soul album. Here, their appearances just make the song sound cramped. Certainly, two clunkers in 17 tracks isn't a bad batting average, especially for a debut, but these cuts come right at the beginning, putting the record in a bit of a hole on first listen.

If 1st Born Second makes a mostly full recovery after that, the final track, "Second Child"--tellingly, produced by Bilal himself--hints that it could have been better still. Around the chorus "Born as a second child/ all I got was hand-me-downs," Bilal weaves a story about a young inner-city black man and the tribulations he must face, against a montage of sounds that's more late-period Miles Davis than Maxwell. Dissonant keyboards bang against the aggressive drums and battle the bass guitar as men scream, "Get that nigger!," "That's my woman!," and "I'm a kill you!" It is claustrophobic, disturbing, and hypnotic.

"Second Child" is a peek into the artistic vision of a young man with something unique to bring to so-called neo-soul. The album it closes is an excellent debut, an album that can easily stand with the best of post-"Brown Sugar" music. But the song also shows that Bilal can do more than be a part of something already established. He can fly alone.

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