wax Poetics

Bilal

Philly soul cat comes full circle

published online
Originally published in Issue 42
By Marisa Aveling

Photo by Eric Coleman for www.mochilla.com
Photo by Eric Coleman for www.mochilla.com

Let it be known: this time around, Bilal is not about love songs. “The way I’ve been writing on this album, I’ve really just been writing for me. Does that sound selfish?” he asks with a laugh. “I’m just not in that place. A lot of the songs are self-searching tunes and political tunes, but that’s where I’m at right now.” 

Guest spots aside, it’s been a good few years since we’ve received official word from the Philadelphia native. If you don’t count the leaked, yet widely lauded, Love for Sale album back in 2006, the last full-length studio release we saw from Bilal was his 2001 debut, 1st Born Second. In this silence, however, the vocalist worked through his own demons, both professional and personal, culminating in the release of Airtight’s Revenge.

The story of Bilal’s third album starts where the leak left him four years ago. Already feeling compromised by a major label and its constant demand for hits, the bootlegging of what was to be Bilal’s second LP simply added force to the blow. He found himself grinding to a standstill, and experiencing writer’s block. “I went through a phase where I just hated doing [music],” Bilal explains. “I hated the process of making it, because I felt like I was just making a bunch of contrived stuff. So I stopped for a minute.”

To extract himself from that clouded head space, Bilal took to the road, playing shows that arose in response to Love for Sale. To his surprise, people would approach him after the show, expressing how much they liked the material that Interscope had all but discarded. This positive feedback from audiences helped Bilal rebuild his confidence. While his immediate intention was to shift away from making music, a lack of pressure spurred him to secretly create again, to write and put together songs in hotel rooms using Apple’s GarageBand. 

With the help of friend, producer, and drummer in his band, Steve McKie, Bilal started piecing together Airtight’s Revenge around two years ago. What has finally surfaced is a reflection of an artist working through a number of ways to reprogram and find himself again, with the backing of McKie and the producers Nottz, Shafiq Husayn, and 88-Keys. Like Bilal said, there aren’t that many love songs on this release, but it doesn’t mean that the content isn’t personal. 

“I even have a daddy song on this album, ’cause that’s the whole thing I go through: being a father and a family man now,” Bilal says. “I also have a son who has autism, so that’s a whole new level of understanding too. And my youngest son is into music, and he has sickle cell [disease]. So there’s a bunch of levels of things that I deal with and that music really helps me understand.”

Through the process of soul-searching and rebuilding himself through creation, Airtight’s Revenge sees Bilal coming full circle. But the search isn’t over yet. “You know what’s funny about that? The more you search,” he ponders before bursting out with a laugh, “you realize, ‘Man, why’d I open up this book?’ But this is a cool journey. Every day is a lesson.” 

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