Phily soul singer Bilal Sayeed Oliver is widely regarded by jazz musicians as the best young male vocalist in the world. At 31, he also has the unique distinction of being modeling-school handsome. So why haven't you heard of him? One possible explanation is his bizarre fallout with Interscope Records after the label shelved his 2006 album Love for Sale. Bilal went all the way indie, became a cult star, and stopped reigning in the powers of his own imagination. He toured with some big names but never achieved the status of, say, Dwele or Donell Jones. He produced most of the tracks on his current album Airtight's Revenge with co-conspirator Steve McKie, and incorporated live instrumentation. For a soul album, it's pretty outré. It's also wonderful.
Like many Bilal products, Airtight's Revenge sounds like an agglomeration of muses, rather than a package of hits. The beats are busy and twitchy. The harmonies come in thick layers. Bilal's voice is a rich, irrepressible, high-pitched vibrato that bends and stretches over several octaves. It can make a minimalist track like "The Dollar" sound like blues. "All Matter," which Bilal introduced two years ago on a Robert Glasper album, appears here in its advanced form. Reverb and echo help create atmosphere, as Bilal wails excitedly over an understated, three-chord melody. "Levels" combines slow-ballad vocals with an up-tempo beat. Many songs have long, windy introductions, and melodies that require the singer to modulate his voice. "Move On" has a joke nod to New Edition.
Airtight's Revenge isn't flawless, but it shows that Bilal can oversee his own production process. And it's the most adventurous soul release in recent memory. (Plug Research)