By Daniel Garrett
Bilal, Airtight’s Revenge
Produced by Bilal Oliver and Steve McKie
Plug Research/The Orchard, 2010
“The crime of which you discover slowly you are guilty is not so much that you are aware, which is bad enough, but that other people see that you are and cannot bear to watch it, because it testifies to the fact that they are not.”
—James Baldwin, “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” The Cross of Redemption
When does sound become music? Is it when you can hear beauty and creativity but not effort? Bilal Oliver has a voice that has been praised by Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae, Q-Tip, and Questlove, but after listening at different times over a period of months to Bilal Oliver’s album Airtight’s Revenge, which includes music that has been described as experimental, I am not sure about the nature of his achievement. He does not lack for ambition, discernible in the themes of his songs: personal and social life, and moments of self-awareness, transgression, love, joy, and pain, with an examination of values.
The first song on Airtight’s Revenge is “Cake and Eat It Too,” which seems to be about the unpredictable nature of circumstances, and, for me, the mood it creates with a heavy beat and nearly industrial texture is an urban, moody, slumming sound. Its lyrics—“I walk this thin line of this double life” and “I want to make love until it rains and sleep all day” and “I’m so mixed-up baby”—indicate drama, but the language is not distinctive enough, nor the music seductive enough, for me to have the sense that this is a story I must hear. Is the song focused on love or laziness or something else?
Bilal Oliver has worked with Beyonce Knowles, Common, Musiq, and The Roots; and for Airtight’s Revenge he has received help with the production of this album, and his co-producer is Steve McKie, who has worked with Jill Scott, and other collaborators include Nottz, 88 Keys, Shafiq Hussayn, and Tone Whitefield (the names are like code words signaling a secret world; but the root of the secrecy may be self-infatuation rather than value). It is hard to pin down Bilal Oliver’s sound. Is this rhythm-and-blues? Is it electronica? It is not jazz or soul music (it does not have the improvised quality, rhythmic complexity, or swing of jazz, nor the grit and passion of soul); and I listen in frustration for what I can call a melody. “Restart” has a fast beat, calling to mind the 1970s work of Donna Summer, whose own experiments in dance, rock, and other popular music satisfied, at one time, a large audience. In “Restart,” Bilal’s voice has a mature quality, and is in contrast to the light beat. “I lost my whole direction, but it’s you that I want,” he sings. I imagine his antecedents are Prince, Terence Trent D’Arby, Seal, and Maxwell, men who managed to evade the more mundane expectations for a man of color; but Bilal reminds me most of Rahsaan Patterson, whose album Wines & Spirits is also innovative, interesting, and a bit irritating. Is it that these men want to bear relation to tradition, without bearing its clichés, and that they want to do something unique but not too unique? “Is there no remedy to cure the pain?” asks Bilal in “Restart.” Could his songs—many of them about confusion—be a signal for a musician’s trouble?
It is tempting, and terribly dangerous, to talk about what it means to be African or African-American or Afro-whatever when discussing certain artists. How much do the circumstances of being a man of color affect the work an artist decides to avoid or embrace? The admiration, anger, contempt, desire, dismissal, envy, fear, misunderstanding, suspicion, repulsion, or pity associated with a public group identity can turn every individual personal or public act and statement into a revelation, or a strategy. Those who did not make the world, and have no special friends in it, must yet make a place for themselves in it. “Everybody hurts. What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips you, what drives you, torments you, is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive,” said James Baldwin (The Cross of Redemption, Pantheon Books, 2010; page 43). Does one articulate allegiance to a tradition held by a minority or a majority of the population; or negotiate a relation with both (and other) traditions? Does one practice hubris or humility? Does one pretend to be an individual or actually become one, pursing an individual vision, risking disappointment and disapproval, isolation and misunderstanding, poverty and punishments? Many people love success, but hate risk, and are indifferent to the more profound revelations of creativity and intellect.
These days, much of rhythm-and-blues is not respected even when popular, and jazz is respected but not every popular; and hip-hop is popular but it offers many attitudes, images, and messages that were once considered lacking in art, civility, and depth—though sometimes now taken as signs of authenticity, as if reality is a synonym for ugliness; and hip-hip has glorified the most damaging, the worst, images of the black male, earning millions. To engage the classical music of Europeans, or rock music—despite its founding by Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and Ike Turner—could be seen as traitorous, a provincial but often prevailing attitude. Important culture is shaped by art, history, philosophy, science, and travel; and intelligent people judge by knowledge, not ignorance; but in certain communities it is the ignorant that set standards. How much imagination and intellect is someone of African descent allowed? What is a musician who is a man of color to do? Of what use are the men and women who have established standards of excellence, such as Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Abbey Lincoln, and Betty Carter? Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and Stevie Wonder? Or W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison? Benjamin Banneker, Edward Bannister, Henry Tanner, Ernest Just, and all the rest? If you avoid all clichés and dangers, you could end up paralyzed or president.
“Ain’t nothing new but it’s always changing,” sings Bilal in “All Matter.” Bilal can make his voice pretty, as he does at the beginning of “All Matter.” A hard-luck girl is the subject of “Flying,” a story-song that reminds me of both the Beatles and Prince. “Levels” is a ballad, but it does not seem to have an organic sense of structure (the novelty may be forced—it certainly has an abrasive quality). Genuine feeling breaks through in “Little One,” yet turns into sentimentality: in the song, quiet, encouraging, protective, Bilal sings that he wants to be known, not idolized (“I’m just a working man”), and that “I won’t let you make the same mistakes, but I won’t hold nothing against you.” It is a father’s song; and parental love can be transcendent, and when it is, there is in it a lesson for other loves, even though there are not many dedicated students. “I can help you walk but can’t make you stand,” sings Bilal, one of the better lines.
“Move On” is an end-of-relationship song. “Robots” has words of resentment for the privileged and sympathy for the wretched. How many people realize that pandering to the poor, and pretending their state is cool or sacred, are as bad, as false, as insensitive, as snobbery? If degradation and dejection are so wonderful for the spirit, why eliminate them? Bilal goes further in “The Dollar,” in its observations about both street squalor and nice neighborhoods and how chasing and worshipping the dollar leads to various crimes. (Of course the problem is not the dollar—a tool for bartering, for the exchange of resources—but rather that the dollar is often the only standard of value: and everything else is made to bow before it.) Yet, the dollar is, as it has been frequently, a useful symbol for misguided drives. Bilal uses different aspects of his voice and also sound effects.
In “Who Are You” Bilal tells a couple of stories that involve astrology, role-playing, violence, religion, proselytizing, intellectual theft, and personal confusion. It is, for me, the most interesting song in terms of theme; and it ends with an affirmation of different identities; and it confirms something Bilal has said: “I strive to be human,” and we are all connected. “Think It Over” has what sound like nice strings, fond words, and the closest the album Airtight’s Revenge comes to a sweet melody.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.