Fresh off one of the most talked about sets at Essence Fest this year, “Money Over Love” singer Bilal made his way to NYC for a little music convo about the new album, working with one of today’s most feared MCs, his attempts at super yoga, and much more.
The Soho Apple Store was already abuzz with tech nerds and music lovers before the soulful crooner is anywhere in sight. Fans of every age and ethnicity headed to the second floor in anticipation of this intimate sit-down, exchanging stories of Bilal’s impressive live shows and favorite songs along the way. Once seated, fans were treated to a rather candid and seemingly accidental moment of hearing the “Sirens II” singer getting mic’d up backstage, his high-pitched laugh bursting through the speakers while still out of the crowd’s vision. Soon, the lights dimmed, and our master of ceremonies, respected journalist Bonsu Thompson, made his way to the stage.
Thompson’s intro placed Bilal among the greats such as Miles Davis and Prince, comparisons anyone who’s heard his brazen experimentation and immaculate falsetto could, without a doubt, agree with. The man himself then made his way out to greet the modest crowd with an appreciative wave and smile before taking his seat and opening up about his new body of work, In Another Life.
The album was produced in its entirety by the brilliant Adrian Younge, whom Bilal says made the process so effortless, it basically came together by fate.
“I met up with Adrian in LA and the first time we hit the studio together, we created a full song. The next day we did two songs. Every time we linked up, we would create 1-3 songs per session, and we didn’t plan it that way.”
He also spoke on working with Big K.R.I.T. and Raphael Saadiq on the unashamedly freaky “Pleasure Toy,” revealing his utmost respect for his “Soul Sista” collaborator by giving him a title many soul men would love to don.
“Saadiq, he’s like a musical godfather to me. Adrian and I were with him and K.R.I.T. happened to be in the same studio. I had no idea he was a real writer and musician. I told him, ‘Man, I thought you just rapped!’We put him on the track while we were in there. It kind of just happened by the universe.”
Bilal has worked with some of the best in the biz, including Dr. Dre and Beyoncé, but usually handles his own material himself, admitting that when it came to his last album, A Love Surreal, he actually spread himself too thin trying to “do everything.” This time around, the music is a little less personal and more “big picture,” which allowed for seamless collaborations. He spoke of composing the album with a loose structure that allowed things to flow organically.
“The writing was very open-ended and sketchy, more like a blueprint with some jazz influence than anything else. None of the songs are really from my own life, so I was able to talk about a lot of different things, something like an MC’s approach.”
Speaking of MCs, Thompson asked why the “Sometimes” singer never cashes in on those big-name collaborations that could possibly wield him a huge hit or more radio play. His initial response was the verbal equivalent of a Kanye shrug, letting a passive “ehhh” escape his lips before giving his unsurprising, yet still refreshing answer, especially in an industry that often equates commercial success with an artist’s validity.
“I don’t chase artists or make music thinking, ‘Oh, Beyoncé should be on this.’ That’s not my concern. When Talib Kweli and Mos Def were on ‘Reminisce,’ they were in the same studio, and Mos asked to hear it. I played it and he said, ‘So this is where I come in, right?’ It was organic. I’m not chasing nobody; I’m trying to spark thought above anything else.”
One MC he certainly didn’t need to chase is Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar. Bilal revealed that they met through one of his background singers and kept in touch until it was the right time to really get to work. The two collaborated on both of their latest albums, with the man of the hour sharing that he surprisingly didn’t write anything he sang on To Pimp A Butterfly. In fact, Lamar’s preferred hours of operation left the veteran soul man on the studio floor, literally.
“Kendrick likes to work odd hours. He doesn’t even start recording until midnight, and I’m just in there falling asleep on the floor like, ’Wake me when ya’ll ready, I’mma be over here.’”
During the audience Q&A, one fan followed up on Bilal’s brief reference to giving super yoga a try. He responded by giving the crowd a small taste of his progress by crouching down into the crane position.
Minutes later, all the talking ceased and it was time to hear one of the game’s most revered voices share his gift with the intimate crowd. He blessed fans with songs from In Another Life, including opening track, “Sirens II,” that clearly borrows from Hov’s “Picasso Baby.” One song not on the new LP, “Let It Go,” was a real treat, as the entire store was forced to pay respect to this man’s vocal range and that now infamous upper register. He wrapped up the evening with single,”Satellites,” from which the album’s title was taken. Before making his exit, Bilal flicked it up with every fan in line and made quite the lasting impression with the crowd. Not bad for a Thursday night in Soho.
Jessica Bennett is a freelance writer and editor based in New York City. She fell in love with hip-hop the first time she heard 2Pac’s “Brenda’s Got A Baby,” and hasn’t looked back since. Follow the Compton-bred music lover on Twitter and Instagram at @Lady_CPT.