Airtight's Revenge

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At the major-label department of artist grievances, Bilal can take a number and wait in line until he decomposes. Though his career was placed on a worn path, the fact that he joined the land of the leaked, shelved, and dropped borders on tragic. When he debuted in 2001, he was the one for whom the neo-soul tag seemed most limiting, as he was more ahead of his time than a throwback. Elements of his first album, 1st Born Second -- like the bold, otherworldly vocals and askew Mike City and Jay Dee productions -- presaged the left-field R&B that bloomed later in the decade. Love for Sale, issued on promo vinyl, filched online by a portion of Bilal’s justifiably insatiable following, and subsequently mothballed by Universal, would have been emblematic of that development. Several years later, the singer, songwriter, and keyboardist finds himself on the sympathetic Plug Research, working with Steve McKie (who co-produces seven of 11 songs and is on most of the remainder in some capacity), fellow producers Shafiq Husayn of Sa-Ra, Nottz, Conley “Tone” Whitfield, and 88 Keys, and a number of session musicians who lend most of the content a full-band sound. It’s hard to listen to his first album for the independent label without imagining the handful of albums he could have released between 2004 and 2009. That is because it is a substantial leap from Love for Sale -- halting, even for rabid fans who snapped up each collaboration and compilation track during the nine-year wait for the second commercially released album. Throughout, Bilal simultaneously sounds as if he is singing for his life and does not give a damn about whether he is spared or not, and it’s a nonstop non-party. The first three songs alone cover the failed resistance of romantic temptation, the repair of self-inflicted romantic damage, and, well, the matter of the third is not clear, but the sound is as fraught as it is affirming. The reeling, gnarled tension in the arrangement of “Cake & Eat It Too” is reflected in anguished falsetto confessions like “I’m so mixed up, baby, I, I --.” The thorniness in “Restart” and “All Matter” is enhanced with sharp guitars, but their lunging rhythms roil more than rock, while Bilal’s voice attacks, swoops, and glides with his live-wire, frayed-nerve vocal acrobatics. Again, that’s the first three songs. The fourth song is not a breather but something of a downcast epic, a harrowing life story about a severely damaged drug dealer’s daughter who breaks her back on a stripper pole. In fact, there is not much of a letup from there. While it does not remain quite as startling, what follows involves the in-flux “Levels” (a clash between a piano ballad and a black-grunge dirge over throbbing electronic sickness), the churning “Move On” (the closest the album gets to straightforward modern funk, akin to prime Van Hunt), and the pensive “The Dollar” (which, beat-wise, resembles Prince’s “Black Sweat” rescued from a scrap heap). This is one heavy, messy, dynamite album -- one that could take a decade to be fully processed.

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