Always a Fighter, Bilal Learns to Let It Flow
It hasn't been an easy ride to international stardom for vocalist and composer Bilal Sayeed Oliver, who performs simply as Bilal. The Philly native, who roomed for a while with jazz pianist and Houston native Robert Glasper, almost quit the business when his second album was rejected by Interscope and then leaked to the Internet, where it has now racked up half a million downloads.
Photos courtesy of eOne Records Smooth or sharp, Bilal delivers the goods.
It was quite a setback for an artist who broke onto the scene with his 2001 album 1st Born Second and its smash single "Soul Sista," which soared to No. 18 on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop charts and established Bilal as an artist to be reckoned with. But after a period of introspection during which he worked with Glasper, Erykah Badu, Beyonce, Jay Z and the Roots, the multi-talented artist bounced back with 2010's Airtight's Revenge.
One look at the title tells us Bilal is both a fighter and master of irony. An album that unapologetically tromps on and obliterates genres, in some senses it can be viewed or heard as Bilal pointedly rejecting the "neo-soul" identifier he was tagged with by fans and critics after the commercial success of "Soul Sista." It can also be seen as a kiss-off to Interscope, who wanted more of the same from an artist unwilling to repeat himself.
He followed up with 2013's A Love Surreal, which went to No. 1 on the iTunes charts virtually from Day 1 and established beyond all doubt that Bilal is a much-loved, singular vocalist and composer who roams wherever his creative whimsy takes him.
His next album on the eOne label is tentatively set to drop in February 2015. He performs at Houston's Fox Hollow Saturday night. We recently caught up with him in New York during band rehearsals.
Rocks Off: How did you hook up with Robert Glasper?
Bilal: We met at the New School in New York almost immediately when we enrolled. I compose on piano and guitar, and his piano playing is as good as it gets. We found a lot of common artistic ground immediately and it just went from there. We even roomed together a short while, rented a little loft apartment in Jersey.
Glasper came out of Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. You came out of a similar program in Philadelphia. What can you say about taking that educational route?
For me it was virtually perfect. I got to be around some very motivated people, I got to be mentored by some very committed people at the school. It was a very positive experience for me.
Glasper and others from HSPVA have noted that their instruction was so good, they coasted the first year at New School as far as classroom work. Did you have a similar experience?
I wouldn't say I just coasted, but I came in very well prepared. But as for Robert and some of the other Houston people, yes, you could tell immediately that they had gotten some very serious high school instruction.
Story continues on the next page.