Like nailing jello to a wall, any attempts to pigeon hole Bilal are futile, with his twisting and turning from one album to another. His fourth studio album, In Another Life, offers further proof of this restless creativity, as he enlists Adrian Younge to oversee and produce proceedings. Bilal’s star has rarely been more ascendant, given his role in 2015's breakout, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, so the inherent interest here is to see what effect this has had on this latest offering.
Opener “Sirens II” is immediately recognizable as being touched by Adrian Younge. The same live drums and lushly re-created '70s soul sound that have graced two albums with Ghostface Killah are at the fore here, alongside stabs of organ and the splash of insistent hi-hats. Swirling amongst these classic soul moments are sci-fi sounds that combine to create a suitably eerie soundscape for Bilal to add his lyrical touch. Those same touchstones are present throughout “Star Now," but where the hi-hats previously splashed, here they ripple throughout, while a stately, monolithic pulse throbs to the accompaniment of a theremin, concocting something that sounds like a soundtrack to an imaginary Quentin Tarantino sci-fi film -- think Jackie Brown meets Star Trek.
The next two cuts, “Open Up the Door” and “I Really Don’t Care,” demonstrate a lighter, jazzy touch. The first of which is a shuffling piece of jaunty loveliness, filled with ultimately uplifting lyrics, while the second is a wistfully meandering piano led piece with a Burt Bacharach-pretty melody. “Pleasure Toy” is a cheeky bit of purple homage that bristles with barely concealed sexuality from Bilal and featured guest Big K.R.I.T., that shares the same playful sexiness that marked Prince’s early '80s output meets Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing."
“Satellites” has a world-weariness in its DNA, courtesy of both the lyrical content and Bilal’s disenfranchised delivery, set to the somber organ lines and more muted drums. “Lunatic,” meanwhile, bristles with menace courtesy of the prowling bass/guitar combination and the screechingly tuneful delivery from Bilal. It offers further proof (though scarcely needed) of the multi-faceted nature of Bilal's intensely individual vocal style. Evidence of his newly minted musical kinship with Kendrick Lamar comes on “Money Over Lover,” a track that starts off in low-key fashion, before some call and response vocal arrangement ups the ante, simply setting the scene for the killer verse courtesy of the nascent king of hip hop.
“Love Child” is pleasant enough, but a sweet opening and a lift courtesy of the chorus are not enough to make it last long in the memory. Slightly churlish it may be, but in comparison to the rest of the album, it just falls a little flat. The final three songs, however, lift the stakes again to complete an album that ably adds to his already excellent catalog.
Kimbra pops up to return a favor by joining Bilal on the duet “Holding It Back,” and it is equally clear this time around (after Bilal’s guest stint on The Golden Echo) that their voices dovetail beautifully. The shoe-gazing chorus of “Spiraling” features an alarmingly brilliant vocal delivery some 40 seconds from the end and the low-key backbeat of “Bury Me Next To You” features a soaring chorus to round things off in style.
Thankfully, all the things to love about Bilal remain intact: his lyrical honesty, an unwavering outsider’s view of love and, most importantly, his incredibly agile and magnificently mellifluous falsetto. All of this adds up to another intriguing and, ultimately, successful piece of work for this intelligent and enigmatic artist.