Soul singer Bilal Oliver
Soul singer Bilal Oliver

The Importance of Bilal Oliver

Back in 2001, Bilal released one of the best neo-soul debuts ever, (1st Born Second). His haunting, passionate, emotion-filled delivery and unearthly vocal range, combined with slick production from Dr. Dre(among others) and guest spots featuring the Soulquarians, 1st Born made a huge impact on me musically. I hadn’t heard such an album since discovering Nina Simone or Tom Waits some years earlier. Actual, real, solid, soul records with conviction are hard to find. The modern music world is encrusted with hollow lyrics and over-produced beats that form something totally devoid of conviction.

From the moment, For You starts, you know you’re in for something special. Bilal was a chance encounter for me. In 2001, I use to frequent a local Circuit City (of all places) because some friends worked there and usually recommended quality music. Well, I kept eyeing 1st Born Second, on the shelves when I would browse aimlessly looking for something to waste my minimum-wage on. One day I gave in and it is perhaps the best “chance” purchase I’ve ever made.

1st Born Second didn’t leave my steady rotation repertoire for years and I still listen to it frequently. It played an especially vital role when I met this girl, we’ll call her Miranda; I use to drive her all over the city because she didn’t have a car and recently moved here from another state. To say I had a crush on her would be an understatement. We had that “something special”, the magic that lies within all truly great relationships. The “X” factor or whatever you call it. Bilal was in my car player all the time because his words conveyed my every thought, better than I could ever express myself. Suffice to say, that didn’t work out and remains one of those “spill-your-guts, oops! non-mutual” type happenings, when I finally chose to express myself. I’ve never been great at making first moves, probably an insecurity issue, well, definitely an insecurity issue. Most of my past relationships involved playing that high school back-and-forth passive banter game. Like we both try to let the other know we’re into one another, but neither one of us has the guts to just be upfront and assertive. Like, just cutting all the bullshit and saying “look, I think I’m falling in love with you” followed by your heart sinking until those words are uttered. Receiving a negative response is like getting your balls stomped on (Warn can tell you about that, sorry) and all guys know that’s never fun. I’ve always been a self-proclaimed “sensitive little bitch” or just “SLB” for short. It’s alright, I’m just in touch with my feelings and I embrace that. Maybe more so than the average guy. I blatantly refuse to watch sports (except bowling or pool/billiards) and constantly lament on having nothing to talk about to the other guys at work. Most of my conversations with people revolve around music (or film). I can’t muster up the desire to actually watch sports. It’s simply not in me right now. Music has always had an extremely profound affect on me. I connect with others who are in the same boat and always will. To me, an individuals interests, (and taste in music) play a big part in my connection with them.

Anyway, I’m trailing a bit here. But my point is that (like many people) I associate certain time periods, girlfriends, life-changing events with specific music/songs/artists. The soundtrack of my life. Radiohead’sphenomenal release Kid A brings me back to rushing to the hospital after Bernie got in an awful car accident and no one knew how he was. I remember being utterly beside myself, at a loss for words. Thom Yorke taught me how to Disappear Completely (and never be found). Bilal has always, and will always be rooted as the backbone of my soul/funk/neo-soul arsenal. From blasting “Reminisce” while cruising with Miranda, hoping she notices that I’m using Bilal to express myself, to collapsing in awe (at times) when I hear “Sorrow, Tears and Blood.” Bilal is nothing short of a musical god.

1st Born Second never received its adequate commercial acclaim. It probably never will. It is rooted in a culture that largely doesn’t want to hear this kind of music. At least, on a majority, mainstream level. Everyone is too busy listening to trash like Usher or T-Pain. While the aforementioned musicians are incredible performers they have nothing on Bilal. I really can’t even place anyone on the same plane as Bilal. Which, really, shouldn’t be compared.

Fast-forward to 2006, Bilal completes his sophomore release, titledLove For Sale, which he doesn’t presently consider an actual release. This could be due to the discouragement he felt, inflicted by the idiots over at Universal, having “shelved the album indefinitely”, citing “we need a hit, this album doesn’t have a hit.” As secondary reasoning, they cited the albums widespread leak on the internet as a reason why it won’t get a proper release. Now, Bilal isn’t the type of guy who gets discouraged easily, or at least doesn’t admit it, or show any signs of slowing down. Myself, I can’t begin to fathom putting your “all”, truly everything you have, emotionally and/or physically into something, only to have it never officially be shared with the world. Especially over such a bullshit reason, the complicated bureaucracy of the music industry.

Now, this is one of the biggest music-related travesties I’ve had the displeasure of experiencing in my 26 years. Love For Sale is nothing short of a masterpiece. The level of musicianship, composition, funk, soul and artistic-value is unparalleled within its genre. It is a more cohesive and honest experience than 1st Born Second, utilizing more live instrumentation an ever-growing vocal prowess and ultimately more intimate feel. Bilal launched himself into another world with this release. Presently, there is a 2-disc Vinyl release being sold throughout Europe. I ordered a copy from New Zealand but can not comment on its authenticity because I have not received it yet. Apparently, it’s big on the black market to press vinyl from unreleased “bootlegged/leaked” albums and try to pass them off as legitimate pressings. I hope this isn’t the case here. I hope to one day purchaseLove For Sale as it presently exists. It’s a shame we may never see that.

According to Wikipedia, Bilal is set to release a new album this year, titled Air Tight’s Revenge and I’m going to keep my fingers crossed.

If the above sounds like something you can relate to and you haven’t heard Bilal, well, what are you waiting for?