Bilal's story has always been different from those of his peers grouped under the "neo-soul" umbrella. Despite his undeniable talent, Bilal never quite saw the success that his contemporaries did. Instead, he's become somewhat of an underground hero, bolstered by the (very) moderate success of his super soulful debut album, 1st Born Second, and his shelved (yet heavily leaked and distributed) sophomore album, Love For Sale. 2010's Airtight's Revenge saw Bilal putting his underground cred to use, weaving experimental sounds with the R&B and jazz inflections we came to expect of him. It wasn't a trip for everyone, but all that joined him on it were in for a ride. So it's a bit surprising, then, that A Love Surreal is full of some of Bilal's most tame work to date. Don't confuse that as lacking, however. Though A Love Surreal has its faults, Mr. Oliver manages to build upon each of his previous works' strengths while adding facets that we've never seen from him before.
After the intro (which normally I would deride, but it actually achieves the goal of setting the mood and tone for the album), Bilal hits us with his best shots. Leading tracks "West Side Girl" (a collaboration with friends Shafiq Husayn and Thundercat) and "Back to Love" satisfy the need for commercial appeal, though they aren't the strongest tracks of Bilal's catalog. Things get all the way funky, however, with "Winning Hand" and "Climbing." "Winning Hand," driven by an undeniable groove, electric guitar and spacy synths, compares winning at love to winning at a game of cards and will definitely elicit a few two steps -- and make sure you stick around for its Marvin Gaye-esque end. "Climbing," on the other hand, is a slice of blaxploitation-influenced soul in which Bilal works his powers of seduction to effective results.
"Longing and Waiting," a fairly solid song, acts as a sort of palate cleanser of sorts between the grooves that come before it and the ballads that come after. However, it also draws attention to one of A Love Surreal's biggest flaws: sequencing. The first five songs, with their solid mid-tempo grooves, grab your attention only to set it adrift amid an endless sea of slow jams for nearly the remainder of the album. And while some of the tracks in that sea are more than worth wading through (the heartfelt "Right At The Core," the early '70's throwback sound of "Never Be the Same," the smoky soul of "Astray"), others ("Lost For Now," "Slipping Away") while not bad, would perhaps fare better with faster-paced companions alongside them.
Luckily "Butterfly," his much-talked about collaboration with Robert Glasper, more than makes up for those songs (and out-of-place album closer "Flow"). The mostly piano-driven song is a reminder of how powerful an instrument Bilal's voice is. On it, you get to experience it from full lows to falsetto highs and all in between. It's easily the highest moment on an album full of stellar songs and definitely should've been the high note the album ended on.
Though A Love Surreal may not be Bilal's best work ever (that title is still held by unreleased masterpiece Love For Sale), it can definitely hold its own among his released efforts. While he seems a bit more subdued on this set, he still manages to be innovative and further push musical boundaries. Though his success might not be on the same terms of his peers, its obvious that he's content in making music in his own lane and on his own terms.