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Always a Fighter, Bilal Learns to Let It Flow

Smooth or sharp, Bilal delivers the goods.
Smooth or sharp, Bilal delivers the goods.
Photos courtesy of eOne Records

It hasn't been an easy ride to international stardom for vocalist and composer Bilal Sayeed Oliver, who performs simply as Bilal. The Philly native, who roomed for a while with jazz pianist and Houston native Robert Glasper, almost quit the business when his second album was rejected by Interscope and then leaked to the Internet, where it has now racked up half a million downloads.

It was quite a setback for an artist who broke onto the scene with his 2001 album 1st Born Second and its smash single "Soul Sista," which soared to No. 18 on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop charts and established Bilal as an artist to be reckoned with. But after a period of introspection during which he worked with Glasper, Erykah Badu, Beyonce, Jay Z and the Roots, the multi-talented artist bounced back with 2010's Airtight's Revenge.

One look at the title tells us Bilal is both a fighter and master of irony. An album that unapologetically tromps on and obliterates genres, in some senses it can be viewed or heard as Bilal pointedly rejecting the "neo-soul" identifier he was tagged with by fans and critics after the commercial success of "Soul Sista." It can also be seen as a kiss-off to Interscope, who wanted more of the same from an artist unwilling to repeat himself.

He followed up with 2013's A Love Surreal, which went to No. 1 on the iTunes charts virtually from Day 1 and established beyond all doubt that Bilal is a much-loved, singular vocalist and composer who roams wherever his creative whimsy takes him.

His next album on the eOne label is tentatively set to drop in February 2015. He performs at Houston's Fox Hollow Saturday night. We recently caught up with him in New York during band rehearsals.

Rocks Off: How did you hook up with Robert Glasper? Bilal: We met at the New School in New York almost immediately when we enrolled. I compose on piano and guitar, and his piano playing is as good as it gets. We found a lot of common artistic ground immediately and it just went from there. We even roomed together a short while, rented a little loft apartment in Jersey.

Glasper came out of Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. You came out of a similar program in Philadelphia. What can you say about taking that educational route? For me it was virtually perfect. I got to be around some very motivated people, I got to be mentored by some very committed people at the school. It was a very positive experience for me.

Glasper and others from HSPVA have noted that their instruction was so good, they coasted the first year at New School as far as classroom work. Did you have a similar experience? I wouldn't say I just coasted, but I came in very well prepared. But as for Robert and some of the other Houston people, yes, you could tell immediately that they had gotten some very serious high school instruction.

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What were your thoughts when you heard Glasper had been tapped to score the Miles Davis movie? I just thought it was dope. I always kinda thought that if they ever did a movie about Miles that Robert would be a great guy to work it. He has such an understanding of the history of the music.

One of Robert's big strengths is how far back he goes in jazz, in piano. I just think it's a great thing for all of us in this field of art that Robert is doing that project.

Always a Fighter, Bilal Learns to Let It Flow

You've sung on his albums, he's worked on yours, you've toured together. What is the main attractant with you guys? We both came up in church music and jazz, so we have a lot of that feel for things in common. But we're also both hip-hop generation, so we were both interested more in music than in doing something that was just jazz. We both love soul, bebop, even rock, and that makes it easy to work together, to understand each other's ideas.

What did you think when Glasper's Black Radio did so well, won the R&B Grammy, etc? It was just a culmination of the work he'd been doing, the path he'd set himself on to me. It's just great to see real talent being recognized.

Your songwriting is pretty intense. There aren't many throwaway lines or easy rhymes. What is your goal or model when you're composing? I'm pretty conscious of just letting it flow, not being bound by genres and all that, just let the music make itself. But at my stage of development, I want to keep stretching until I get to where I'm writing songs on a level of, say, Lenny Kravitz, guys like that who keep it very real.

Bilal performs with special guest Bel Ami Saturday night at Fox Hollow, 4617 Nett. Tickets are available through lunaface.com.

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