Philadelphia soul man Bilal is your favorite rapper’s favorite soul singer. While the left-of-center jazz man has collaborated with many of today’s biggest stars like Beyonce, Erykah Badu, and Jay-Z, he remains largely unrecognized in mainstream circles. After dropping 2010′s critically acclaimed album Airtight’s Revenge, Bilal Oliver is back with his fourth project A Love Surreal.
I caught up with Bilal on the New York video set for A Love Surreal‘s first single, “Back To Love.” During a brief lapse in filming, Bilal opened up about the vision he has for his new album, why he bucked at the neo-soul label, and why you can’t look at Erykah Badu in her eyes for too long.
TUD: What is your vision for A Love Surreal?
Bilal: It’s just a play on life meets art or art imitating life. As well, it’s a nod to Salvador Dali. He’s one of my favorite artists. With this music, I kinda of tried to smear certain sounds and create a certain tapestry that would sound like the way his artwork would look.
I wanted to write standards. You know, I wanted to make songs that I could recreate over and over again live. It’s the same musicians on most of the songs. This is my band who I’ve been playing with for the last eight years or longer. As long as we’ve been playing together, we’ve never really done a whole album together. That’s what we did this time. I really wrote sketches kinda like how you would write a jazz standard or I would sketch out a part of the song and teach it to the band. Almost like a Prince and the New Power Generation type of vibe. This album I really wanted it to have a conducive sound. We spent a lot of time playing with the blending of sounds and since we’ve been playing together for so long, it was really fun.
How does this album differ from your last project Airtight’s Revenge?
Airtight’s Revenge is more of a concept album. In retrospect, it was a darker type of album. I wasn’t really speaking about love and it was more about social issue topics. It was about different things that I’ve never really gotten a chance to sing about. This album is back to more love topics, more intimate relationship type of things. It’s a warmer album.
Why choose to do an album about love and going back to love considering we’re in such a crazy political time? Why choose to do something like A Love Surreal instead of Airtight’s Revenge?
Well, I just make music off of where I am spiritually. I already said everything I wanted to say on Airtight’s Revenge. I think love cures all ills anyway. So whatever situation we are in politically, love’s always the answer.
Considering all of the collaborations with mainstream artists, do you ever feel some type of way about still being called an underground or underrated artist?
I always feel underground and underrated. Until I get to where I wanna be…
Where is that?
C’mon man. Sold out shows all over the world.
More Grammys and all of that too?
And jets! [laughs] But I always see myself on the come up because I always have things changing in my mind that I wanna infuse into the music.
When you first came into popularity, everybody threw you under the neo-soul umbrella. You said that term didn’t fit you and your music. What term does fit?
None of them. A lot of people are doing it now, but when I first started making music, I knew that I wanted to make music that blended all of the genres. It wasn’t just one sound. I went to college for jazz so my music will always have an undertone of that. But I’ve always been into blending genres and sounds. So to just give it the title of soul, I’m fine with that. But to say it’s neo-soul…my music’s not in a box. I’m always changing and growing into something.
So what do you think about artists like Elle Varner who definitely has that jazzy undertone to her voice. She blends jazz with straight R&B and a little bit of New Jack Swing. Could you ever see yourself going in that direction?
No because I already did that. Nothing against her, but that was kinda my concept on 1st Born Second. I was straight off jazz and I wanted to do music with hip-hop producers and see what would happen if I sang over a track that a rapper would normally be rapping over. That was one of my reasons for hooking up with J Dilla. Dilla’s pops was a jazz musician so he understood that whole thing.
What has been the craziest recording experience you’ve had?
When I did “Soul Sista,” I was in Raphael Saadiq’s garage. It took us a whole day to do that song because we didn’t know he had left the garage to go get his hair braided. He was recording the guitar line, but he made sure all of the lights were off. So a few people and I were in the control booth and all of a sudden he stopped playing. My homie was like, “Nah, he’s just vibin’. He’s just vibin’!” After two hours, I was like, “I don’t think he’s in there anymore.” When we went in the room, he was gone. When he came back at like one in the morning talking about, “What? You didn’t write the song yet?” I was like, “Yo! We were waiting for you to play the next chord!” He thought he told us he went to go get his hair done.
What is the most common misconception you hear about yourself?
That I’m a neo-soul crooner. I think my music is more than that. Another misconception is that I can sing opera in twelve languages! [laughs]
I definitely did hear you could sing opera in twelve different languages though!
[laughs] A f**king lie! [laughs] I went to a performing arts high school and I sang opera, but I didn’t know what the hell I was saying. But I’m into classical music, but I don’t speak the languages that they are performed in.
What was the best advice you’ve ever received about getting into the business?
The best advice I got was from Erykah Badu. She said, “Don’t apologize. Don’t make any apologies for who you are. Just be.”
Is it true that you really can’t stare into Erykah Badu’s eyes?
Oh, no. Not for too long [laughs] She has power! She has special powers! [laughs]
After you’ve passed on and someone is being introduced to your music for the first time, what do you want them to get from it?
This is an experience. You have to live with my music like Miles Davis or Sade. It’s not one of those records that you just play one song and put it on your iPod. You gotta play the whole record and chill. I want my music to be known as the ultimate vibe.
Has the whole digital sale of music hindered your sales because you make albums that need to be listened to as a whole and the digital space focuses on the hot single?
I never really paid it any mind. plus, I haven’t had a record deal in about seven years! [laughs] I just make the music. If the music is good and there are people who dig the music, they’ll buy it. I don’t pay that stuff any mind because it would affect the way I make music. I try to just stay on my path.