To call Bilal's new album, Airtight's Revenge, a comeback album would be misleading, even if it somewhat feels that way for the Philadelphia-raised, New York-based singer.
It's not as if Bilal (his full name is Bilal Oliver) has been sleeping at the piano since first making noise with his 2001 album, 1st Born Second. Just Google him and see the extensive list of collaborations, guest appearances and live performances he's done in the past nine years. Those who do more research might also discover that Airtight's Revenge isn't even Bilal's first album since his debut, but rather his third one after a widely bootlegged second album, Love for Sale, which never was officially released.
Still, despite all his activity, Bilal does feel Airtight's Revenge, which was just released, is a reintroduction of sorts to the same audience that hailed him as a budding star in the neo-soul scene nine years earlier. Bilal sat down with The Root to discuss his new album, the album a lot of people never heard (Love for Sale) and other random tidbits, like his love for karaoke.
The Root: You've been touring quite a bit to promote this new album; do you still get a lot of fans asking where you've been?
Bilal: Yeah, I get that question a lot. But I basically tell them I've been doing my music. I've been doing spot dates for nine years. I've been working on a lot of other people's projects. I haven't been staying stagnant … I've been on so many hip-hop projects these last couple of years; it's kind of crazy. From Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek's record ["Ends"], to Jay-Z ["Fallin'"], to the Clipse ["Nightmares"], to Scarface ["Can't Get Right"], just mad stuff.
TR: Even by the standards of the old music industry, nine years is an awfully long time between albums. Do you think fans are more impatient than they used to be for new music?
B: Yeah, a little. I could understand why people would be impatient for me. It's been so long, I kind of started to get impatient. But right now, people are expecting people to come out with an album every year; I don't really dig that. People really just over-exhaust things and they just want more. There's so much stuff out there.
TR: Well, how long did Airtight's Revenge take you to make?
B: I've been kind of working on it for three years, on and off. A lot of the music I really wrote at home, just sitting down at a piano and writing. Maybe five tunes in, I thought, "Oh, this is an album."
TR: Before this album, though, there was another album only your diehard fans know about. What happened to Love for Sale? Why wasn't it ever given a proper release?
B: It was a record I was working on for Interscope. I had just about finished it, I was in the process of mixing it and it was bootlegged. When it was first happened, I was really f***ing mad. Then it kind of turned around for me. I started to get a lot of Internet buzz, and I tried to get the label to put the record out, but they winded up shelving it, and we kind of started to have disagreements on creative direction and we just decided to part ways, basically.
B: Well, Love for Sale was kind of like a singer-songwriter deal, like I wrote this new album. I sat down at the piano and wrote all of those tunes, a lot of them, and the ones that I didn't do, I was with my own producers. [Interscope's] whole concept was work with all the hot producers and that will be your album, and that's never been my deal. If anything, I'd like to have two or three producers. But I see myself as a singer-songwriter and I can pretty much produce myself if I wanted to.
TR: Besides bootlegging affecting potential record sales, what else upset you about Love for Sale's leak? You said it wasn't finished, and people still loved it.
B: I always knew it was a good album, and I fought tooth and nail over that album because my label didn't really understand what it was that I was doing, and they didn't understand I didn't want to work with a bunch of producers. It was also like they're asleep, because I felt myself arguing over it all the time. They really felt the record was kind of dark and not really sexy. I went to battle on that album on a daily basis, which I felt was kind of stupid because I felt the music was really dope, and most people I was playing it for were feeling it and loving it. Whenever we would play it out live, people were enjoying it. It was one of those deals that while I was creating it, I had that feeling like, "Oh, this is dope."
TR: When I was at the listening session for Airtight's Revenge earlier this year, you said people who liked 1st Born Second were probably not going to like this album. Explain.
B: Well, the concept beyond this album was really just to write short stories and dark tales of life in general. I used a lot and drew a lot from my own life and my own experiences, but I also took a lot of things from fiction and tried to make certain statements, from a love standpoint.
TR: One of the life experiences you drew upon is your oldest son for the song, "Little One." What's the story behind that?
B: My son has autism, my oldest son, and I was just inspired to write a song that kind of would inspire parents and children alike to press on. It was kind of an inspirational type of deal for me and my son. I really like to use my music nowadays as a platform to raise awareness and speak on different issues, and autism means a lot to me because it's such a mystery to me. A lot of people don't really understand it, know where it came from or how to face it. I felt like I'm in a good position to raise awareness on that. I wrote the song for my child, but I also write in a way that every parent can identify with that song.
TR: Is it difficult for you to balance the demands of being a musician and a family man?
B: It's life. Life is life. I draw from life to make art … nothing really kind of fazes [me] as far as my life is concerned. I kind of look at it like Einstein looked at it; there was no real title on what he did; he just did it. So I don't think I'm one of those types of people that sacrifices my personal life for my artistic endeavors. I think everything in life is art; you just have to have an eye.
B: I have a song on my album called, "The Dollar." I wrote that after an incident me and my mom went through. We were walking on South Street, a shopping street in Philadelphia, and my mom was going shoe shopping. We were walking down the street, and my mom saw a full bag of crack on the ground and she goes, "Oh, my God, there's a bag of crack on the ground!" And I swear, out of nowhere, a crackhead just pushes us aside and picks up the crack, and says, "Oh, hell yeah! My lucky day!" And it just inspired the hell out of me, like I just laughed and laughed all the way home; and when I got home, I just sat down on the piano and the chorus was, "Oooh, it's my lucky day."
TR: Anything else from life that inspires you or you enjoy outside of music?
B: I'm a big YouTube cat. I'm always on YouTube. There's always funny stuff. It keeps me busy all day.
TR: Oh, so I'm sure you know about Antoine Dodson.
B: Oh, yeah, that guy was hilarious [laughs]. The song is hilarious. But when I listened to the regular one, he is kind of talking in a rhythm. It was really hilarious how they did that.
TR: Yeah, that song is a hit. A lot of people know the words to it like it was on the radio. Were you ever into karaoke?
B: I used to be big on karaoke back in college. Maybe once a month with [R&B-pop music producer] Bryan-Michael Cox and [jazz pianist] Robert Glasper, and we would do a bunch of Jodeci tunes.
TR: What's your favorite Jodeci song?
B: Oh, man, we would kill their version of [Stevie Wonder's] "Lately."
TR: Last question: going back to Airtight's Revenge, what's the meaning behind that title?
B: Well, the meaning of the title is reflecting all the stuff I've been through in the last nine years, with my album Love for Sale being bootlegged, and getting in conflict with my label and it never coming out. Just the whole long, drawn-out standstill behind it and how it kind of turned into a phoenix-rising type of deal, with people giving it mad love online and just became this underground type of sensation. So that's the real revenge, the music couldn't be shut down or hidden, but people got it and they loved it, just like I loved making it. That was the meaning behind "revenge," and "Airtight" is just an old nickname that I got.
Back in the day, I used to really be into reading Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim. I casually read both of their whole catalogs, and they inspired me as a songwriter also, but there's a book Iceberg Slim wrote and the title is Airtight Willie & Me. I kind of kept that name, "Airtight." And I think even back then I thought it would be dope to have an album with the title Airtight-something, so Airtight's Revenge sounded like a black exploitation film. It kind of fit the scenario.
Jozen Cummings is the author and creator of the popular relationship blog Until I Get Married, which is currently in development for a television series with Warner Bros. He also hosts a weekly podcast with WNYC about Empire called Empire Afterparty, is a contributor at VerySmartBrothas.com and works at Twitter as an editorial curator. Follow him on Twitter.