Photo credit: Antoine Braxton
If music is a continent and its genres are territories upon it, defined by lines in the dirt, Bilal is the storm that thunders across them all, unconcerned with the scribbles below. Nothing holds him back. He’s a shapeshifter, holding the breadth and depth of humanness in his voice. Impish playfulness slides into wide-eyed, wild howling, then shifts into warm, smooth sensuality. He’s punk rock and Prince, James Brown and Bowie. Witnessing Bilal perform is cathartic—it feels like a release and an affirmation—of love, of pain, of doubt and joy. In “Who Are You,” his gorgeous meditation on identity, he sings, “I’m a lover, I’m a fighter, I’m a saint, I’m a sinner…Heathen child of the funk…I’m a freak, I’m a mind-number/Anything you want…I’m a human being.”
Bilal brought it all to the Highline Ballroom on Nov. 30. He strolled onto the stage, arms spread wide and rigid, face stony and intense, into a soundscape of spacy, modal guitar play and gnarly organ chords. Grabbing the mic, he and his stellar band broke into a symphonic swell of “Star Now.” It resonated with an echo of Radiohead, the instrumentation dark and inviting and his vocals intimate and tinged with spookiness. So often Bilal’s voice is quiet and wavering or ringing a high, clear falsetto like what I’d imagine a glass trumpet to sound like, then it will dive into a ragged, pavement growl. The power of those dynamics is stunning, complicating what otherwise might be a straightforward lyric.
The band wove many of his finest and wildest creations into a long, electrifying setlist. The 2001 not-just-neo-soul jam “Sometimes,” which begins with “This is a song that makes me spill out all my guts,” grooved hard and ended at a climax with Bilal howling and brandishing his mic stand, veins popping in his temples. “Hollywood” had a Herbie Hancock-style ’80s funk vibe—a laid-back but hard-hitting tune with four-on-the-floor bass drum and eight-bit keyboard wriggles. The jewel of that song was the heavy, dirty breakdown, with a thick guitar solo from Brad Williams and fiery trumpet solo from Igmar Thomas. Bilal paid respects to the late, incomparable J Dilla, with “Reminisce,” a tune that Dilla produced, off of Bilal’s debut, 1st Born Second. It features verses by Common and Mos Def—that night Bilal took a crack at Mos Def’s bars. Now, a decade after J Dilla passed, the lyric “a happy story always ends” carries even more weight.
Although his music often ventures into thorny emotional territory, Bilal has a lot of fun. Most often, in between songs he’s grinning huge and making jokes. The show had a strange comedic break when he started interacting with a fan at the front of the crowd who seemed to be trying to lock pinky fingers with him: “This ******’s scaring me.” He slunk into a corner of the stage, dramatically hanging his head and arms and eyeing the guy with a comically apprehensive face. He then followed a sermon about loving oneself by breaking into a soaring, reverberating rendition of “Love Child” that ended with a huge, perfectly timed smash. Bilal’s records are incredible pieces of work, but his live performance is where he really comes to life. He dives deeply into his music and entrances his audience with it and always keeps us on our toes—he’s in his own category of bold creativity and unpredictability.
Bilal laid down the crisp neo-soul funk with “Back to Love.” This track was fiercely funky in that chest cavity-vibrating way, with a terse and perfectly sloppy drumbeat. Matthew Hartnett gave a slick trombone solo before the band slipped suddenly into a straight-ahead swing groove as Bilal and backup singer Micah Robinson had a scat battle.
When Bilal pulled out his sensual hit “Soul Sista,” the crowd went wild. “Soul Sista” emerged from the early ‘00s, when Erykah Badu, D’Angelo and Maxwell reigned on high. That neo-soul sound is timeless, its sensuality both restrained and brimming over. In this one, the laid-back passion of his voice is a thing of great power and beauty. A lyric from his song “All Matter”—a lush, heartfelt message of love—describes his voice here: “What is love?/Cool on the outside/Hot in the middle.” And who was better at wrapping intense heat in subtle, nuanced sounds than that icon of sensuality, Prince (R.I.P.)? Bilal is surely some kind of spiritual progeny of Prince, and he knows it—he pulled out a heart-wrenching, pitch-perfect cover of Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones.” By the end of that slow jam, Bilal was on the ground, writhing around with a piercing falsetto shriek—“Séance complete,” he said afterwards.
There is something so universally potent about the kind of tense-muscled restraint that both Bilal and Prince sing with. I recently read this line in a book: “Love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love [is] the ache, the anticipation, the retreat…” Bilal’s approach to singing songs of love and desire embodies that idea. The power of his voice in these songs is the ache, the anticipation and the retreat—that tension is what’s so intoxicating. Bilal’s voice, when it’s almost a bridled, subtle whimper, can be at its most intense—both teasing and yearning at once. Of course, in the next bar, odds are good that he’ll shatter that feeling with an unbridled thunderclap.
All of this is to say that Bilal is an artist like none other. If you want to listen and open yourself to all he has to give, he’ll take you on a mighty trip, through highs and lows, light and dark. Before walking off the stage, he stood, again, stony and intense, arms raised, soaking up the wave of radiant applause.