Like my previous review of Thundercat, Bilal was also a collaborator and band-member to Kendrick Lamar as the background singer. He also appeared on “Institutionalized” and “These Walls,” from To Pimp A Butterfly. Born in Northwest Philadelphia, he graduated from The New School for Jazz & Contemporary Music in Greenwich Village, NY, and began working on background vocals for big names like Common & Erykah Badu. Now on his fourth studio album, off of the popularity and attention To Pimp A Butterfly brought him, he releases In Another Life.
On records like “Institutionalized” and “These Walls,” from To Pimp A Butterfly, Bilal really gained attention due to his raspy and soulful vocals, with a huge range and great delivery. Described as “neo-soul” by the media, Bilal has expressed that he doesn’t believe the term fits, as he looks more at himself as a “pusher of boundaries”. While I have to agree to with Bilal’s pushing of boundaries, I still feel like neo-soul fits, as he seems to have found the extended-genre-pushing boundary he feels most comfortable in.
On In Another Life, Bilal chooses the high range of his vocals to dominate most of the record, and chooses more grittier instrumentation than was present on To Pimp A Butterfly. Opening up the album is “Sirens II,” a recreation of “Sirens” by producer Adrian Younge, which was also used as the beat to “Picasso Baby” from Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail. This version is very different from Jay-Z’s, of course lyrically and structurally, but even production and instrumentation wise. An interesting opening to a record, to essentially recreate a song that a larger artist, Jay-Z, had already created, and arguably had done better (even for late-era Jay-Z material, that beat is sick).
While Bilal hits his stride a couple of times throughout In Another Life, and I can groove to it, the rest is kind of an odd haze that goes beyond my comprehension. Not that I can’t understand it, because I can still hear it, but that I don’t see his reasoning or ideas toward what he’s doing. The true and obvious highlight of the record is the end of “Money Over Love,” when Kendrick takes over the end of the song and just shreds like Kendrick does best. With Bilal in the background for that part, it’s reminiscent of To Pimp A Butterfly, and reminds me more of what I really want to listen to, and immediately places In Another Life on a scale against Kendrick that Bilal probably doesn’t want to be on.
An interesting experimental neo-soul (though he hates the term) record, Bilal might fit under the same criticism I had towards Thundercat. While, thanks to To Pimp A Butterfly, I’ll always perk up when hearing Bilal is on a track, it will most undoubtedly be best when he’s a featured vocalist.