Bilal Oliver is the wunderkind of neo-soul’s deferred second coming. Not only is his debut, 1st Born Second, a stunning ode to stark honesty and the absolute power of pussy, it’s also the kind of opiate we waited several release dates for both D’Angelo and Erykah Badu to roll with on their just-OK second trips to your dome. Most notably though, not since Prince has a soulful paragon made effeminacy as sexy a thing as pink cashmere and not come off as a homo-thug in the process. But more than Prince—who he’s been likened to ever since he dry-humped the stage at BAM while making “International Lover” sound like a fiercely kinky sex-capade two years ago—Bilal’s live shows remind me of Afro-Cuba’s bipolar La Lupe. Some people say that when she performed, La Lupe not only got into character, she also channeled spirits of the lost souls she sang about—spirits that made her scratch her face and chest sometimes until she bled.
On 1st Born, Bilal carries over his own animated convulsions with the same kind of zealousness as he does live, making his album an almost religious, if not evangelical, experience. And just because the Philadelphia native is in touch with his feminine side doesn’t mean he’s a punk even if an über-flamboyant r&b prince like Sisqó allegedly thinks Bilal sounds like a girl on his Mike City (of Carl Thomas and Sunshine Anderson fame)-crafted second single, “Love It.” On the contrary, confrère, Bilal is so comfortable with his own sexuality he often shamelessly morphs into a parody of himself, wailing in falsetto what guys will only profess behind closed doors for fear of looking soft in front of their boys.
Take his midtempo quake “Sometimes,” a freestyle session inspired by what cowriter and producer Soulquarian Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson tells me was a concoction of scotch, Donald Goines novels, and four hours at the charged Electric Ladyland studios. Riding “?uestlove” ‘s erratic, sometimes desperately furious drumrolls and England’s Pino Palladino’s somber bassline, Bilal is as lyrically spastic on the track—wishing he was drug-free and enlightened in one bar and committing domestic abuse in the next—while coming off vocally intrepid in at least four octaves. On Dr. Dre’s beat-tailored “Fast Lane,” cowritten by Oliver and Bilal’s label heads Faulu and Damu Mtume (sons of James), Bilal rasps a tragic sketch about the politics of pimping through life over lilting synth-driven echoes courtesy of keyboardist Scott Storch.
The way Bilal stretches every word out to a roller-coaster ride of endless syllables, usually at the feet of one of Mary Magdalene’s manipulative daughters, makes even his more happy-go-lucky moments—in the lazy “For You,” aerial “Love Poems,” and “Love It”—sound like a fallen soul’s homily of remorse. A former student at the elite Mannes Conservatory of Music, the early-twentysomething manchild has since fronted a gospel-and-jazz group and sang backup for D’Angelo on tour. Where younger artists sojourn in a safe lane of intrusive riff-laden cookie-cutter songs, Bilal is like a drunk driver swerving from lane to lane not giving a damn whom he runs over on the left wing. While there are a few gotta-pay-the-bills reliables on 1st Born—like the Pete Rock and CL Smooth interpolated “Reminisce” featuring Mos Def and Common, as well as the pervasive surf-‘n’-turf coffee-shop aria “Soul Sista,” which initially appeared on the Love and Basketball soundtrack—you’ll never hear its best shit on Hot 97’s 12-track-long playlist. The self-produced and -written title track, which starts off as an atmospheric jazzy wallop of self-pity and later speed-races into a frenetic drum’n’bass, is as hyperkinetic as a Guy Ritchie film. With the exception of Dr. Dre and Mel-Man on the Parliament-Funkadelicized “Sally,” the cast members on 1st Born Second are kind of predictable. But they’re also necessary to complement Bilal’s capabilities as a musician and songwriter; kitschy samples just wouldn’t work here. The Soulquarians run deep like the Warriors: James Poyser on script and Rhodes, “?uestlove” on drums and studio knobs, Jay Dee, and Erykah Badu all contributed (although Erykah’s James Mtume-produced duet with Bilal titled “Halo” didn’t make the album). And rapper Common makes his r&b-songwriting debut in the unmistakably introspective “All That I Am. ”
So call him soft if you will, but don’t turn your back on Bilal. Not only is he clearly the favorite and prodigal son of whatever post-something-or-other ascendant we are now calling soul music; like he was her girlfriend, Bilal might make your queen want to suck him off just because he turns his life into an open book. Such vulnerability from men is, well, intoxicating.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 7, 2001