Bilal has seem to risen into mainstream life from out of nowhere. This album drop is like running into your long lost high school friend you used to clown with in American Literature back in high school. You're like "aw man, I can't believe it's you! It's so good to see you!" But in the back of your mind you're thinking "wow, he's changed. A LOT!" Well, this is Bilal in a nutshell. Much of his creations have changed since his debut album First Born Second in 2001. Those who are expecting to hear another "Soul Sista" track should probably step away from this album in the record store (or Best Buy, Walmart, Amazon or where ever you shop for music). This is nothing like the guy we used to know.
This has to be the greatest album of 2010, arguably this decade, that expresses the mind of a musician. Aside from adding his anti-crooned out, all naturale vocals to love ballads, Bilal composes songs that are thought-provoking, deep-thinkers that just might hurt the average consumer's noggin. Airtight's Revenge goes an extra emotional step that most singers and songwriters choose to leave alone in their quest to the top of the music business.
A few of the songs on this album were remakes of previous Bilal brainchildren, but given a twist to fit Airtight's Revenge's sound. "All Matter" went from a jazz stream of consciousness to an adventurous, lesson-teaching track, but it lost its sincerity in the process. The blame for this falls on the production behind this, as well as the majority of the album. The band seemed so focused on sounding untouchable they forgot the emotional aspect of music.
These are songs that go deep, really deep, into subject matter Bilal fans - those who responded to the unreleased, the real, sophomore album Love for Sale well - will appreciate. The only thing that hinders them from enjoying it is how difficult it is to follow his change from his last album from nine years ago (which for anyone would seem easy to do, as old "fans" may not even remember it).
He tackles issues that most R&B crooners forget to cover - religion, parenthood, poverty and other socially conscious topics. "Little One," the most straightforward track on this album, is a song to his children about wanting to always be there, even when he's not. He says "I can help you walk, but can't make you stand" to illustrate that his presence should be felt whether or not he's there. Though the band keeps the track mellow and borderline boring - and could very well put your kids to sleep if you play it for them, it is probably the best lullaby (besides "Rock-a-Bye Baby" of course) you could play for your child.
The best head-nodder on this album is definitely "Flying." A song about the downside to drug abuse, as if no one knows of them, the song is near flawless. With elements of hiphop, soul and folk, Bilal tells a dark story of a travelling girl who lost her mom and dad during a drug bust, became a prostitute and a crackhead, pill-popping stripper, using drugs to ignore her surrounding though it is the cause of her tragedy. Raw in nature, his delivery is grand - like, he shits on every single R&B artist in this song by being as liberal as possible: using his entire vocal range, writing the most vulgar lyrics and dialect, and keeping the band as dark and soul-stirring as possible. It feels like a resurrection of Donny Hathaway on this song!
He reaches a level of boldness, according to how to be successful in 2010, in his songwriting through tackling these issues as well. In "Think It Over," instead of just humming a tune like "look, I'm sorry I left you" Bilal drops line that combine changing history with matters of the heart. He puts himself and his lover in the shoes of Martin and Coretta King by saying "I needed air / I stepped out / on the balcony / and the world took me out." I really enjoy how he calls out Obama in "Robots," as his presidency is in no way stopping "the machine" that is out to control us all!
Throughout Airtight's Revenge, Bilal showed signs of sarcasm in his voice. In "Who Are You," he tells tales about religion being a non-factor in how people should judge one another, but uses an old, old, traditional style of lyricism for this particular track with his usual vocalism. It goes from being innovative based on the lyrics alone to layers and layers of how expansive music is and how religion is incorporated into it. The song starts like a tale fresh out of Aesop's Fable but ends like a track a Rastafarian would enjoy rolling a fat one to.
Overall, Airtight's Revenge exemplified a deep-thinking progressive artist like Bilal. Although the album is a bit difficult to understand, it does carry itself freely from beginning to end. All elements of songwriting came out of this project, something that is well worth the wait. Not to mention Bilal's singing, though it hasn't changed much, is still untouchable. Some songs could have had less going on, production-wise, but it came off as necessary, especially considering its purpose - exploring the mind of Bilal.
Star's Grade: A-