Few singers can animate a tune like the Philadelphia-raised phenom Bilal. His best songs confess tough truths (“Sometimes”), slither and seduce (“Soul Sista”), and puff-puff-ponder existential mysteries (“All Matter”). The sick power of his famously elastic tenor and bold lyricism is put on almost comical display at his live shows, where swooning fans sing his lyrics louder than he does.
Bilal is also the bare-knuckled survivor of music industry b.s. (i.e., his criminally shelved sophomore album, Love for Sale). His fifth studio album, In Another Life (due June 30), is a collaboration with producer/film scorer Adrian Younge (Ghostface, The Delphonics, Black Dynamite)—with songs sparked from the singer’s solo meditation on a quiet California shoreline by dawn.
In Another Life accomplishes a feat once fairly routine for classic albums back in the day: it’s the product of a single producer’s vision. In Another Life is spare with A-list guest features (Kendrick Lamar, Big K.R.I.T., Kimbra) and painted with splashes of psychedelic soul, prog-rock, mid-’80s synth funk and a recurring rhythm bed best described by the onomatopoeia ingeniously coined once by Q-Tip: “the boom, the bip, the boom bip.”
Hang-gliding over everything is Bilal, a vocal shape-shifter who testifies with church hollers that twist into an alt-rocker’s squall before slaying an aerial high note. Bilal is every singer in one guy, a performer generous with his wide-brimmed smile yet cerebrally tuned into himself, never breaking character in song.
He’s also a breeze to interview: raw, expressive, and wonderfully free of media-trained, canned responses that can be a pain in the ass to glean any authenticity from. When Bilal visited EBONY.com’s midtown Manhattan offices for a half-hour chat—sporting toned-up, colorfully tatted arms and buoyant energy—there was lots of cracking jokes in the room, with the singer goofily imitating his friends’ voices and exploding with full-bellied laughter. He’s as openhearted and uninhibited as his stage show. No holding back, as fearlessly real as his mentor and friend, the late, great J Dilla.
EBONY: How did you originally connect with Adrian Younge?
Bilal: We met through mutual friends at a Roots Jam two years ago at Brooklyn Bowl. And a mutual friend of ours, [mutual] manager Andrew Lojero signed me to do Airtight’s Revenge on Plug Research. He introduced us. It was on some sh*t like, y’know, sh*ts and giggles. Like y’know, [mimicking Lojero’s gruff El Lay manager voice], “This is the only cat I’d say is a bigger genius than you.” I was like, “Who the f*ck is this guy?” [Laughs] And Adrian was like, “You’re a genius?” I wasn’t familiar [with Adrian]. I knew like, the “Picasso [Baby”] thing with Jay Z, but I didn’t necessarily know him until we played with the Roots.
EBONY: Why did you choose Adrian’s sound for the new album?
Bilal: One of the major things that I like being [at Adrian’s studio] is all of the access to the vintage equipment. And when I went to Adrian’s studio, he was working on an album for Ali Shaheed [Muhammad], and we were neighbors at the time. So he was like, “Get on my album. Adrian’s producing this.” I was like, “Ah, I know that fool!” We went over his place, and we wrote like a song that day. I came back the next day; we did a song. We looked back and it was like, We doin’ an album, right? And [Adrian’s] big brother or godfather in the game is Raphael Saadiq. You know Raphael and who he is to me. So we went to Raphael’s and … played him like two, three songs we were workin’ on and he was like, “Yo, y’all gotta do an album.”
EBONY: The album bridges modern and old-school in a unique way. Any particular influences that you guys tapped into?
Bilal: Me and Adrian kinda had the same influences, but he’s inspired by a lot of old soul. One of his favorites is the Delphonics. That’s one of my favorites—their approach to music and how sophisticated it is, with the stop times and the 5/4 bars. It’s like weird sh*t goin’ on in their music. Real high-level jazz composition sh*t. And we also have the same love for psychedelic prog-rock. We’re both big King Crimson fans.
EBONY: And being in Cali changed up your lyric-writing process. How so?
Bilal: I developed this love for doing my vocals and a lot of my lyric writing in Los Angeles. Because coming from the East Coast, when I go out there, I wanna wake up mad early. My manager lives out there and takes me to the beach. So I’m at the beach by myself early in the morning; it’s inspiring. By the time I get to the studio, I’m just open.
And one of the major things I’ve been gettin’ into is Zen philosophy. You just kinda go with the flow of sh*t, y’know? I’ve [always] had a hand with production, so it was very different. But it also freed me up to really open up in writing. That’s why In Another Life fits so well: from watching the news. It’s a bad time, but it’s a good time for artists like me, I guess, that wanna talk about what’s goin’ on.
EBONY: The video for your first single, “Satellites,” addresses police brutality. What was the genesis of the video concept?
Bilal: The genesis of the video was that we’ll kill anything that we don’t understand. So I took the approach of a foreigner landing on this planet and, y’know, you can see that as an alien. You can see that as a God. But it comes on this planet just to help and look around and winds up gettin’ choked out and killed! [laughs]
EBONY: Exactly! I thought of Christ—
Bilal: But wouldn’t we do that? Isn’t that what we do with anything that we don’t understand but it jars our attention? I hope [the song] will just make a person think about the times. I’m not here to implant any of my judgmental ideas on you. The only thing I want to do is make you think and look at your own thoughts.
EBONY: New cases of police brutality appear in the news every day. How did you respond to seeing the incident involving the teenage girl at the Texas pool party?
Bilal: There’s a lot of ignorant bullsh*t going on. It’s very good that cats have cameras. Cats [wanna] record and it’s f*cking weird that police don’t realize that sh*t. It’s almost like it turns them up even more, like “oh, now, for the camera!” [Laughs] [E]verybody just needs to get involved, because it’s just human rights. Like, he obviously wasn’t in danger, she was half-naked, and she’s a small girl.
I think a lot of people act like that because they just get this slap [on the wrist] and then they don’t get their job back. It’s not seen as criminal. They get off. But everybody knows how deep the police system and the judicial system goes. So you gotta go deep inside of that to fix anything.
EBONY: You have collaborations with Kendrick Lamar, Big K.R.I.T. and the singer Kimbra. In the case of Kendrick, you’re returning the favor for your guest work on To Pimp a Butterfly. What does each collaborator bring to In Another Life?
Bilal: K.R.I.T., I love who he is a musician as well as a rapper. He’s a producer, he’s got his own thing. And just a killin’ MC. I like what he talks about and what he stands for, and it’s the same kind of thing that I’m about and that I’m on. So it made sense.
The same thing with Kendrick. And plus at the same time, I was doin’ the To Pimp a Butterfly record. Like, he had came past the studio while I was there. Adrian didn’t even know that we were working together. Adrian played him the shit and he was like, “Yo! What the f*ck was that sh*t?!”
And Kimbra, I had worked on her last record that came out and that was just so fun! I didn’t know she was that f*ckin’ badass! I came to the studio and she kicked the engineer out and engineered the session! She’s killin on the axe, she’s a killin’ beat producer. It was just like a female Prince! I was not expecting that. Kimbra was like my sister after that.
EBONY: Shifting gears a bit, you’ve talked very candidly in past interviews about the rewards and challenges of raising your children, two of whom who have special needs. Can you touch on that?
Bilal: The thing about my [autistic] son is, he looks like a regular kid. He just doesn’t talk. The thing about him is, he just has no f*cking fear. Autistic children have no fear whatsof*ckingever. Like, they will run into ongoing traffic if they see like a really awesome balloon across the street. It’s just that they don’t understand that they are a danger to themselves by doing certain sh*t.
But I look at him like he’s [one of the] X-Men, y’know? [Laughs] The government hasn’t figured it out and was tryna make like the ultimate superheroes and they’re just coming out autistic now. But my middle son, his sickle cell, that is what worries me a lot.
EBONY: What’s your biggest worry?
Bilal: It’s day-to-day with sickle cell, y’know? It’s a blood disorder, so that’s more of a thing. I learn a lot about myself. I look at my son like a hero almost. I get a lot out of him that fuels me and my music. And the same thing with my other kids, you know? I live off of their approach to life or the way they see me. Because they see me as this pristine awesome f*cker, and I’m really not, y’know? But that’s the way we view our parents, as these awesome cats. We don’t even know, like, a lot of the times that there’s certain shifts and dualities to just being humans.
EBONY: You also appear on Slum Village’s new record. How does your experience working with J Dilla show up in your creativity now?
Bilal: How does it not? I went to high school listenin’ to those cats. Then I moved to New York, and a year later I’m in the studio watching them create and watching how they create. What I learnt from watching Dilla was his fearlessness. He did whatever he wanted to do.
One day we were in the studio and Dilla was like, “dis sh*t needs some bass.” And he started playing bass. It only had one string. That was Dilla. I was like, “I didn’t know you played bass!” He was like, “I don’t!” But it was the funkiest shit of all time! So it’s just like you approach sh*t like, “It’s in my head, so it’s supposed to come out.” And this is before you could play some sh*t and make Pro Tools fix it.
Towards the end of his life, he could get inside of a computer and replay every sample. He was nasty, and watching that sh*t it was like, what the hell?! And he did it effortlessly, all while crackin’ jokes, bussin’ on people, callin’ cats “big head.” I didn’t even realize how incredible [he was], ’cause we were just havin’ so much fun!
EBONY: Finally, you identify as a jazz musician first. What’s your vision or hope for the future of jazz as an art form in America?
Bilal: I just hope we make some fresh new sh*t like the [jazz giants] did! [Laughs] I hope we make something new!
Sun Singleton is a musician/editor/journalist based in New York City whose work has been featured in a variety of publications, including Vibe, Mass Appeal, Complex.com, Bronx Biannual, YOYO/SO4 and BET.com. Feel free to connect with her on Twitter at @sunsing.