Bilal’s Philly soul revival

Multi-instrumentalist raises R&B stakes

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it’s tempting, at least initially,to look at 21-year-old crooner Bilal Oliver as simply the latest in a stream of neo-soul upstarts trying to wrestle R&B back from the predictable bump ‘n’ grind of R. Kelly and Usher.The Philadelphia-born singer is decidedly old school. A former jazz musician who plays vibes, organ, guitar and percussion and who was first burned into music fans’ minds singing the hook to Common’s The Light, Bilal’s 1st Born Second debut sounds like the smoother stepchild of D’Angelo’s Voodoo disc.

Analog to the core, the album features familiar neo-soul touches from folks like the Roots, James Poyser, JayDee and D’Angelo producer Raphael Saddiq, and largely steers clear of clichéd R&B histrionics.

Dig deeper, though, and it becomes clear that 1st Born Second is more than just Voodoo 2. There are several twists to the familiar retro soul program.

One is getting the notoriously R&B-shy Dr. Dre to add his menacing thump to two tracks. The other is the range of sounds on the disc. 1st Born Second moves from ol’-school soul to hiphop, psychedelic rock, roots reggae and drum ‘n’ bass.

It’s that scope, and Bilal’s willingness to push around within soul music, that’s gotten him the nod from everyone from straight-up R&B fans to new-school soul jazz heads like Gilles Peterson.

“I don’t deal with soft music, which is why I don’t even consider what I do R&B,” a very relaxed Bilal offers from Philly. “People throw labels on everything. I know what my music isn’t, but I’m not sure what it is.”

If there is one thing that ties 1st Born Second together, it’s where it springs from. Bilal is just the latest in a series of forward-looking retro soul musicians springing out of Philly, ranging from the Roots and producers like Vikter Duplaix and James Poyser to Jill Scott and poet Ursula Rucker.

It seems logical that many of those people would continue to work together, and Bilal points to the obvious ties among the new Philly mob.

“To me, what brings all these people together, even an outsider like Dre, is that we all play live instruments,” he reasons. “It’s live people playing in the studio, and you can’t imitate that. That’s something I’ve always been involved in, from church to playing in jazz bands at school.

“Unfortunately, being a musician isn’t something that’s important in R&B right now. Maybe we can inspire other people to start playing instruments again and not just sing over tracks.”

Without a live band behind him, it’s unlikely that Bilal would have come up with a closing track like Second Child, a moody, volatile epic that shudders through a handful of different styles before eventually falling apart in a space rock mess with people screaming and crying. Not your typical big R&B closer.

“When I started making music, I was in this jazz frame of mind, really coming from an avant-garde place,” Bilal laughs. “It was like Bobby McFerrin mixed with Sun Ra, Indian chants and a big ol’ groove. It was far out there.

“I had to flip my craft when I got my deal, because I don’t think the masses would be interested in hearing that, but I let a little bit of that sound out on Second Child. We were trying to do this live drum ‘n’ bass thing, and it turned into the score for a horror movie.

“I look at it as my masterpiece. Most people don’t like it, but the song still trips me out.”

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