For almost 10 years we’ve waited, like high school girls by the telephone, for an official follow-up to 2001′s 1st Born Second from Bilal, the modern day Curtis Mayfield who falsetto’d over some of a generation’s most cult-ish rap cuts. In 2006 there was a blip from Internet-leaked Love For Sale, but it got shelved by the label and passed unheard by many. Over the past decade he’s toured and worked regularly, showing up everywhere from semi-obscure Radiohead tribute compilations to songs by Erykah Badu, The Game, Clipse, Solange. But it’s only now, in 2010, that Bilal is finally releasing a second official full-length record, Airtight’s Revenge, to a homecoming worthy of a bonafide star.
The lack of recorded output doesn’t deny him that title. Bilal’s voice–a vast, flippant thing that’s simultaneously raw and refined–is modern-day legendary and the reason he’s been able to pull crowds despite mediocre sales. It soars and scrapes through the 11 tracks on Airtight’s Revenge, taking refuge in the jazzier corners and croaking, pleasingly, through more avant garde trappings. This isn’t the Jazzmatazz, Soulquarian-styled neosoul of the early 00′s; it’s not a comeback, but a follow-up. He’s not veering that far from the path, but Bilal benefits from being the type of artist whose fans tolerate switch-ups.
What is missing, however, is the cut-loose, flailing vocal work that typified his earlier work. Airtight’s Revenge is vocal R&B as we know it (albeit sung by an atypical singer) with more progressive, less structured, arranging. Previously, we heard traditional hip-hop boom bap under Bilal’s vocal acrobatics, but the flamboyancy this time around is in the sleepy funk metre of “Cake And Eat It Too” and tight, reeled-in drum work of “The Dollar.” Despite not being as mesmerizingly immense as some of his earlier output, the record is still a far-out journey of dramatics (“Restart” and “Levels”), hooky winners (“Robots” and “Think It Over”) and real-world lament (“Flying” and “Think It Over”). In short, the wait paid off.