Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Bilal: A Love Surreal (2013)


2013 has been, as we'll see in the coming weeks, a banner year for R&B. At no other recent time that I'm aware of has one popular genre so completely eclipsed all others in both innovation and universal appeal. Yet that does not erase the Male Problem of soul music, which is less egregious that rock's Male Problem but equally frustrating -- that is the sense that the presently empowered generation has produced few male voices of note that fall neither into the trap of misogyny and nastiness either pervasive or oblivious (see Robin Thicke; The-Dream) or a complete blandness and absence of identity (see John Legend). In between the two extremes lie brilliant performers like Miguel and Frank Ocean whose problems are more earthy and technical: they simply haven't yet mastered the quality control part of their careers, which gives the eager busyness of their output an air of unprofessionalism.

Bilal is a professional. Only slightly more prolific than the legendarily scarce D'Angelo, he has typically until now made his name as a mildly eccentric progenitor of "alternative" soul, a niche eagerly co-opted by several major labels in the early 2000s that nevertheless went basically nowhere, despite some success for potentially major stars like Angie Stone, Macy Gray and Jill Scott. This was itself an outgrowth of the neo-soul of the '80s, and Bilal's early records were nearly indistinguishable from that format despite a sonic upgrade informed by the blockbuster work of Sade and Janet Jackson in the intervening years.

Bilal strives for the same female-dominated audience as these performers -- which isn't a meaningful distinction except that it speaks somewhat to Bilal's stylistic interests: his machismo is strictly erotic, his records groove rather than grind, and he is not invested in the rapey crassness or stony ambiance of someone like the Weeknd. Good on him, to that extent, but it would be nice if his albums had at least some of the distinguished strangeness and arid, out-of-time storminess of the Weeknd's. There was a time when so many male soul singers were sex-obsessed and musically restless but still managed to show respect for the partners they sang about, who were on equal footing in terms of both desirability and capacity for desire.

A Love Surreal -- fifteen demerits for any musician who puts him- or herself in that hallowed category, by the way -- falls short of its influences because Bilal has no driving personality. He is a good songwriter and an excellent singer, although his upper register is a little husky and weak, but as much as he has audibly studied the innovative spurts and staggers of Prince (whose voice he occasionally imitates impressively) and Quincy Jones, his work seems to only find time for a real sense of adventure and invention as an afterthought. It all seems like such formal, respectful funk, more in the vein of Prince's excessively relaxed early-'00s work than his relentlessly stunning peak material. At least one song, "The Flow," comes on like Prince decided to write a jingle for a JCPenny back to school sale in 1995. Maybe that's a compliment, though.

The arrangements here are splendidly disorienting, which is a good match for the romantic content of the songs, articulated by much business about how much he loves your shoes ("West Side Girl") or a good bit of pensive dirty talk ("Longing and Waiting") that refreshingly celebrates the sexiness of consent. Not much here about getting women drunk to drag them home against their will, and plenty of intelligent and sly lyrics instead, but it's unfortunate that the tradeoff seems to be lite-jazz rambles (which are sometimes tempered, at least, by stilted and weird beats like that of the catchy "Back to Love") and the preponderance of slow slow sloooooooow jams. Those are by no means bad, but the frames of reference called to mind are surprisingly dull and, well, unsexy: Bon Iver on the weird fantasy/sci-fi soundscape "Right at the Core," Steely Dan on the majorly hooky "Astray," and... John Denver, of all people, or maybe (let's be generous) the Commodores on the melodic folk-rock AM radio schmaltz of "Lost for Now."

The most confident of the slow ones is the aforementioned "Longing and Waiting," and it implies a better direction with its slight variance and disarming use of murmured come-on dialogue, fused with hard guitar and a falsetto closer to Bilal's earlier work. That sensuality-dripping voice also appears on "Astray" and it seems to be Bilal's greatest technical asset, the mood around which his jazz-friendly pipes wrap most readily. But an entire album like the bass-heavy Quiet Storm piece "Winning Hand" could be nice too; despite the catchphrase-heavy lyrics, it scratches the kind of itch you tend to imagine was the idea in the beginning, and its baroque harp and synth trills bring in the proper measure of weirdness befitting the record's title. Generally, though, "surreal" in this context means playing to the same stoned audience enjoyed by the likes of the Weeknd and AraabMuzik; "Climbing" -- one of the few cuts here not at least partially produced by Bilal -- does go all the way with its circular groove, but its cloudy griminess already sounds dated, and it just isn't what this particular artist is best at.

A Love Surreal can't be counted as a failure, but it inherits a problem familiar to the ambient and neo-soul influences it flaunts, and not at all the luminaries Bilal himself has always striven to emulate: heard in the background, it's pleasant and agreeable. Up close, it's boring. Overprofessional and excessively polished, it's a noble and respectable record that could be so much more, but as it stands it just doesn't stay in the mind for very long.

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