It’s easy to define a musician with a genre label. However, most “file-under” tags—such as “indie-rock,” “freak folk,” or…(ugh)… “chillwave”—are as limiting as they are broadly descriptive. (And that’s not even getting into the ridiculousness of some micro-genre names music critics come up with.) Such is the case for Philly-born-and-raised Bilal, who—despite jumping across genres since the release of his 2001 debut, 1st Born Second—has always been saddled with the “neo-soul” label.
Perhaps the suits at Interscope (his former label) thought “neo-soul” was a great idea from a marketing perspective. But it’s pretty clear to anyone who isn’t a major label executive that it’s a confining—and, in this case, inaccurate—term. If Bilal’s previous work isn’t enough proof of that, his new album, Airtight’s Revenge (released today on Plug Research) should more than settle the matter. In the places where Airtight works best, Bilal is cross referencing several musical styles—mixing elements of soul, R&B, funk, and jazz. On top of the slow-grinding rhythms of “Move On” there’s a electric guitar wah-wah riff that gives the song the feel of an Isley Brothers classic; the album’s opening track, “Cake & Eat It Too” is a mid-tempo, psychedelic funk jam that brings to mind both Sly Stone and D’Angelo.
The two tracks that best sum up Airtight are the drum-riff-driven “All Matter” and the Weather-Report-esque “Levels.” The former is the latest—and perhaps greatest—showcase of Bilal’s ability to seamlessly incorporate his musical influences into one infectious, hook-laden song; the latter, meanwhile, is an indication of the more creative uncharted territory he could be exploring in the future. You could call it jazz-fusion, or maybe even spacey jam music. Just don’t call it “neo-soul.”
The record-release show for Bilal’s Airtight’s Revenge is tonight at 9 p.m. at Johnny Brenda’s; tickets to the $21+ show are $20-$25. NPR Music is streaming Bilal’s full album in it’s entirety here.