Philadelphia-born vocalist Bilal Sayeed Oliver — better known by his stage name, Bilal — takes pleasure in being subversive. The 29-year-old trained in opera and knows how to scat through chord changes, but is more famous for rough-style romancing — usually over a hip-hop backbeat. Onstage, he’s unabashedly campy. He’ll arrive in a straw hat and Coke-bottle glasses, and still come off as an incorrigible flirt. His 2000 Interscope debut, 1st Born Second, opened with an after-midnight-style intro that sounded more than a little facetious: Now ladies, unwind, feel the motion of a mack/I’m like warm lotion on your back.
But offstage, Bilal’s a dissenter with a low tolerance for bullshit. He shot Interscope to the left when the label shelved his 2006 sophomore album, Love for Sale. And now that he’s independent, and resolutely so, he’s composing most of his new material on Garage Band. Bilal likes it that way. “I’m not taking anybody telling me who I am,” he said. “If I have to carve out a niche for myself I will.”
Carving out a niche is something Bilal already does well. Born to a Christian mother and orthodox Muslim father, he learned early on how to oscillate between worlds, but always seemed a little out of place. (He was always voted “Weirdest Person of the Year” at his performing arts high school.) He says his first exposure to live music was at his father’s Philadelphia jazz club. “I believe it was called Cadillacs,” said the singer. “My pops used to get me in there because he knew I liked music. Back in the day they had these open closets … and I would just sit in there with the cigarette machine so that when the police came they would pull the curtain.” Ironically, Bilal’s father disapproved of the singer’s career choice, and has never attended a single show (allegedly because secular music goes against his faith). “My pops is Muslim. … He’s waiting for me to wake up and stop playing.”
But it was impossible to stamp out Bilal’s musical inclinations. At age eleven he became choir director at his mother’s church. At fourteen he formed a group and started gigging at the Blue Moon Cafe in Philly. In high school he arranged tunes for the school band — a small ensemble with a big-band vibe, he said. Back then Bilal didn’t really want to be a singer so much as play piano in the school band, but his mother couldn’t afford a piano. “I had no way to practice,” the singer said, “so I started doing arrangements for the big band. I really wanted to be on some Quincy Jones shit. I guess that’s why when I sing I try to mimic an instrument.” His high school tour de force was a small ensemble arrangement for the old spiritual, “The Morning Train.” “There wasn’t no vocals; it was horns. It was on some Art Blakey-type shit.” The singer ultimately brought his jazz sensibilities to hip-hop.
Nearly a decade after its release, 1st Born Second still sounds brilliant in many different ways. The album is actually a hard listen, reveling in unconventional chord progressions and abstract harmonic ideas. Even the more radio-friendly tunes — numbers like “Soul Sista,” “All That I Am,” and the J Dilla-produced “Reminisce” — have a kind of hypnotic, love-song-turned-inside-out quality, and don’t seem at all like traditional ballads. The real payoff is Bilal’s agile, often-idiosyncratic falsetto, which situates itself more or less comfortably in the strange atmosphere of his compositions. His favorite vocalist is the husky-voiced Betty Carter, and when you listen to his material, her influence is apparent.
Nobody at Interscope got it, he said. “I came at them like ‘Yo, I’m trying to produce all the songs myself. I wanted to make all the beats and compose all the songs myself,’ like I’m white-boy Beck or some shit,” he said. Apparently, the label didn’t easily cotton to the idea of an up-and-coming artist lording over his own project. They wanted Bilal to work with, like, a thousand producers. “I think it’s dope for what it was,” the singer conceded. “But I know when I was doing it was like, ‘Yo, we’re in the studio with another producer.’ The album sounds like a dope-ass mix-tape: Bilal featuring Dr. Dre, Bilal featuring Jay Dilla, Bilal featuring Floetry. At a certain point, that starts to eat at your own natural creativity.”
The reasons why Bilal’s 2006 follow-up got shelved are still widely debated in the blogosphere. Love for Sale was leaked online a couple months before the projected release date, and some say Interscope got discouraged by the tepid audience reception. Bilal blames the label wholeheartedly. After Interscope tabled the project, he stopped showing up for studio dates. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that, had Love for Sale been released, it would have recast Bilal as a much different type of soul singer. He took a very considered approach in making the beats, creating layered melodies and chord voicings that sound as though he had a full band in the studio with him. The vocals show a level of musical depth that you almost never hear in contemporary pop.
Now a free agent, Bilal spends a lot of time touring (he just got off the road with Jill Scott) with a band that features Blue Note pianist Robert Glasper, bassist Tone Whitfield, and sometime-Mint Condition drummer Chris “Daddy” Dave. Offstage, he’s become something of a nihilist, especially when the conversation turns to popular music. He hates the overproduced sound of most hip-hop, he’s annoyed by the pretentiousness of mainstream R&B bands, he disparages modern jazz for sounding contrived, he thinks that producers are being cast as “the new artists,” that artists are just “dumb-ass people that come to the studio,” and that most producers “have no idea about music, either.” Such vehement remarks haven’t helped endear him to major labels, yet Bilal is well-respected among musicians. On a national level, he’s still relatively unknown. Among peers, he remains an icon.