Even though Bilal Sayeed Oliver — that’s Bilal, to his fans — has a new album, A Love Surreal, ready for fans to consume, he is still hounded by that one question: Will Love for Sale ever get the proper release it deserves?
“Well, I don’t know,” Oliver says. “I would like for it to, but it’s a lot of stuff mixed up into that whole record – you know, Interscope and everything. I was also signed to a publishing company, so it’s just a lot of hands mixed into that.”
For fans of the 33-year-old, Philadelphia-born, Brooklyn-based soul crooner, Love for Sale is considered his masterpiece, albeit an unfinished masterpiece that never got a proper release since most of the music was leaked and bootlegged during production. Guess we need to go back a bit on how this began.
Fresh off his acclaimed 2001 debut 1st Born Second, Bilal headed back in the studio to work on a sophomore effort. While the first album featured some A-list producers — Dr. Dre, ?uestlove, Dre and Vidal, Raphael Saadiq, the late J Dilla — Bilal wanted to be more hands-on with in the production side of things. “That album was kind of when I started to experiment with just trying to produce things on my own, you know,” he says. “Things are different then the way they are now, you know. Back then, you couldn’t really spearhead your own project and kinda have the vision for it. And I went to my people and I told them that, you know, I wanted to really spearhead the project. And I did a bunch of songs and, then, I brought them in. In the process of me doing the latter, I guess, part of the record — it was bootlegged, you know. I don’t know how it was bootlegged.”
Around 2006 or so is when 12 tracks of Love were leaked online. Even with the leak, Bilal wanted to move on and work on more tracks, but he says his label, Interscope, wasn’t having it. “They wanted to discard everything and start from the top, and I kind of didn’t want to do that,” he says. “I was really happy with the work that I had done, and we just started to go back and forth.”
For a while there, the passed-around Love became the black-music equivalent of Fiona Apple’s once-shelved (and also notoriously bootlegged) album Extraordinary Machine, with fans singing its praises online and speculating that Interscope was holding the album back because it was too different, too daring, too unmarketable. The popularity of Love began to turn Bilal into a cult hero. “When it got back to me, I started doing tours off of it, you know,” he says. “I started doing mad shows, and it was kind of crazy.” He also became a sought-after hook man, doing guest spots for everyone from Jay-Z to Clipse to Erykah Badu to Robert Glasper (who has performed on all of Bilal’s albums, including Surreal). “It was, like, a bad thing that turned into a – I wouldn’t say a good thing because it would’ve been good if it came out. But it kind of turned into this little, ironic twist to my life, you know.”
It wasn’t until 2010 when Bilal finally released an official, second album, Airtight’s Revenge. For this release, he decided to hold off on doing the intimate, love songs he’s known for in favor of going for darker themes. “I like weird-named albums,” he says, referring to his “Airtight” nickname that he threw into the title. “So, Airtight’s Revenge kind of went with the vibe and the feel of what I was going through. I kind of just wrote about, you know, the dark side and just the experience of life in general.”
He went into personal territory with the second single off Revenge, “Little One,” a song dedicated to his eldest son, who has autism. “It was kind of very organic how it happened, you know,” he says of the Grammy-nominated song, which originally came from one of his band members. “When I heard the melody, the words kind of came to me. It just kind of made me think about my son.”
He’s back on the lovey-dovey tip for Surreal, which he says merges elements from both Love and Revenge. “That’s exactly what I wanted to do with the record. I kind of wanted to bring — I guess kind of bring back to life kind of the soulful things that I was doing and mix it in with the experimental type of things that I was doing on Airtight. I learned a lot from Airtight, you know.”
While Revenge was released on Plug Research, Bilal got together with E1 Music for Surreal, a label that is also home to fellow progressive-soul singers/major-label defectors Dwele and Anthony David. “I liked the freedom that they were giving Dwele,” he admits. “I know Dwele. I’ve known him for a few years and like the kind of freedom that they were giving him up there.”
Nearly all the songs on Surreal are produced by Bilal, who says he found inspiration from surrealist icon Salvador Dali while working on the album. “Normally, the thing that I like about Salvador Dali is his artwork is very, how do you say, dimensional, you know,” he says. “I wanted to make the music kind of ill, like you could close your eyes and swim in it, you know, almost like it had dimensions and different levels in places that you can kind of envision as well as listen to…This is really the first album that kind of has, I would say, a complete thought, from the artwork to the music as well.”
So, while the future of Love for Sale remains in doubt, Surreal is very much here. Bilal recorded the vocals at a beach-side studio in Los Angeles, and, as he envisioned, you can close your eyes and “swim” in the albums 13 tracks. It’s streaming in full at NPR right now. Go take a dip.