Release Date: February 26, 2013
Frank Ocean resurrected R&B last year. Or reinvented it. Or just rescued it. At least, that’s the way many critics saw it. But while his channel ORANGE — an excellent record, of course — catalyzed interest in the genre, the frenzy of genuflecting that followed cast a sour light on his immediate predecessors and peers, a.k.a., those artists who had been releasing fine R&B records for years (if not decades), and whose brows likely furrowed quizzically when they learned that their chosen genre had been moribund all along.
With sober timing, then, Bilal’s fourth album arrives in the wake of ORANGE‘s year-end-poll sweep. If that cresting wave carries more interest his way, then all power to the collective good. But despite its hammy title, A Love Surreal shows the folly of blind Ocean Fever. Call Bilal the Frank who’s always been here.
At this stage in his career, the Philadelphia-born and currently New York City-based veteran hasn’t benefitted from much media hype. But the primer on Bilal is still royal stuff. His debut album, 2001’s 1st Born Second, featured production from Dr. Dre, J Dilla, and James Poyser (perhaps Erykah Badu’s most important producer). He’s scored a couple of Grammy nominations (no wins, though). And his extra-curricular work as a hook man-for-hire has seen him embellishing songs by rap oligarch Jay-Z and closing out Clipse’s magnificent Hell Hath No Fury. He also warbles with a lilt that’s capable of distilling sophistication into a raw emotional pull. And he’s not afraid to stand on his own: Pleasingly, A Love Surreal eschews the idea of calling in favors, instead laying bare Bilal’s own songwriting and production prowess.
After a perfunctory “Intro,” the plucky “West Side Girl” jolts the album into motion, with Bilal demonstrating an ear-catching economy of phrasing as he tells a girl she “look like you took your good shoes off the shelf.” It’s a quirky line to define a song. The savvy writing continues with “Winning Hand,” sparked by a strikingly stark scenario: “Like a gambling man who has no trace of luck / I roam these streets on a whim.” “Climbing,” built around a rugged, rap-ready beat, pleases with a coy lyrical nod to Biggie’s “Party and Bullshit.”
This opening run invokes fair comparisons to channel ORANGE: Both singers are apt at coining lines that become conspicuous in their simplicity. (The aforementioned “Climbing” even comes off like a stylistic twin to “Crack Rock.”) Then Surreal surges into broader emotional territory. Listening to Frank Ocean is alluring because it’s often a (possibly, deliberately) hollow experience: His songs are injected with the feeling that there should be more to life, but there isn’t — the Xanax-gnashing, Caddy-smashing kicks represent just another form of boredom in a grand scheme of nothingness. Ocean writes best when in character, so his scenarios impress as much as the sentiment. But Bilal writes with an open, more vulnerable, less cleverly conceptual heart, delicate and tender.
Thus, Surreal‘s mid-section is redolent with loss and lament. Things don’t always work out for the best. “Slipping Away” is sonically treacly, with Bilal attempting a last, desperate grasp for a departing love, pleading, “What can I do to change your mind?” “Lost for Now” indulges a vibe of airy melancholia, its protagonist coming to terms with being alone as he rides dolefully out of town. But these dark points aren’t ends in themselves: Shadowy moments always relent to light. And so the song closes with a shimmer of cymbal and a new salvation blessed with “a smile that changes everything.”
Upon fulfillment, A Love Surreal becomes about the promise of tomorrow, putting it this way: “Woke up this morning to the sound of a bluebird singing / Suddenly I knew just where to begin / Something so simple / How can it speak so loud to me?” That warm sound has always been there — we just need to take a moment to notice it.