Freed from expectations following the long gestation of his previous albums that took nine years to see the light of day, this is Bilal’s best album. And you know what’s sad? That before D’Angelo re-emerged on the scene with Black Messiah, Bilal – a different R&B singer with an almost identical biography; started in the late 90s and whose vocals have appeared in at least one of your favorite hip-hop records (including Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, which D’Angelo also featured in) – released one of the best R&B albums of 2013, and no one cared. You’d think that this sort of subtler R&B would have been right up everyone’s alley; was it the absolutely ridiculous cover?
Like D’Angelo, Bilal has been blessed with a good voice: the self-harmonizing throughout opener “West Side Girl” makes it the most direct song on the album (“Hey … how you doin’ … I’VE BEEN WATCHING YOU”), not to mention the ultra-melodic he runs through the second halves of the verses. But like also Black Messiah, it’s not about the singer, it’s about swimming in the grooves (“Butterfly” is much more pianist’s Robert Glasper’s triumph than it is Bilal’s), and this record might hold some of the best guitar I’ve heard in any recent R&B record. See, for example, the buoyant atmosphere of “Lost For Now”; the muscular riffs of “Winning Hand” and “The Flow” (with the drums alternating between a heavy pulse and light taps); creating, with the help of the drums, a sense of upward motion in the choruses of “Climbing” (my personal favorite); creating sexual tension throughout “Longing and Waiting”, making its lazy phone call conversation-type bridge a non-issue (best moment: “I’ve been WAITING so patiently, baby!” Bilal screams as the song shifts into its climax). Elsewhere, “Back to Love” – one of the weaker numbers – at least sports a thumping bass vamp and the aforementioned “Climbing” has an absolutely gorgeous piano line throughout. “Butterfly.”
And you know what’s heartbreaking? The discussion of where Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly came from as if it materialized out of nowhere; people trying to trace it back to OutKast or DJ Quik, when this record – Brainfeeder-influenced beeps and heavy bass tones and psychedelic washes of piano and stentorian guitar and John Coltrane-referencing title – was the obvious direct predecessor (not to mention that Bilal also appears on six of that album’s sixteen songs). Figure it out.