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These are exciting times in music; a return to purity, risk-taking and truth-telling. Yet it has been some time since we have seen the likes of BILAL OLIVER. His prodigious debut album 1st Born Second (Moyo Music/ Interscope), is a symbolic raising of the bar, worthy of critical examination. Herewith the work of a man born on the cusp of the eighties: the launch of MTV, Prince's Dirty Mind, Reganomics, the digital revolution, the lingering stank of Parliament's Motor Booty Affair (aww-aakk! aww-aaakk!), and "Rapper's Delight". At barely twenty-one years old, Bilal Oliver is clearly possessed with that oldest instrument: the Voice. Bilal emerged as part of the loose-knit Soulquarian collective, which included the likes of Erykah Badu, The Roots, Jill Scott,Common and Mos Def. His breakthrough 2001 release, 1st Born Second, melded hip-hop aesthetics with neo-soul vocals and clear jazz influences, winning him enormous praise and a spot on the Billboard top ten.
Bilal has since appeared on a number of new and important jazz recordings, including Robert Glasper's Canvas and John Ellis's Roots, Branches and Leaves. He has worked extensively with The Roots and Common and made a guest appearance on The Three Tenors of Soul release "All the Way from Philadelphia." Stayed tuned for an upcoming recording/ DVD from Bilal.
To wit: 1st Born Second, a work of resounding superiority, recalls Donny's soul and Mahaila's sanctified. Like Nina Simone, Bilal is classically trained, in jazz and big band arrangements, and opera voice. This child of hip-hop seeks to approach swing and scat with the same expansion and technique as Ella Fitzgerald. He writes his music, lyrics and notes. That is worth repeating: Bilal writes his own music, lyrics and notes. Because of all these things-exquisite turns of phrase, embodiment of the feminine, and a rooted understanding of pitch, emotion and the note-that, if all goes as should in these, Bilal is surely one of the most significant artists of our changing times.
After twice appearing on Common's Like Water For Chocolate, Guru's Jazzmatazz Street Soul, and writing and producing with kin like Erykah Badu, it is understandable that 1st Born Second is ultimately about birth, elders, and order. 1st Born Second is at turns reverent and blasphemous. Ragtime and Rufus. Mardi Gras and baptisms, homecomings and homegoings. An amalgamation of field hollas and folktales, organs and weeping, brave bursts of song, heavenly choruses and truth, truth, truth.
Bilal Sayeed Oliver is named so because his mother is a devout Christian and his father, orthodox Muslim. "He wanted to take my name a few times," Bilal says, he of the church on Sunday, hell on Monday, faith. Raised in Philadelphia, Bilal frequented hole-in-the-wall clubs till sunrise with aspirations of scoring film. His eventual classical training at New York City's Mannes Music Conservatory, ensured he was able to sing opera in seven languages, as well as an extended musical vocabulary. Bilal is a young disciple of King Tubby and Jelly Roll Morton; music of the early twenties, that pitch and swing, the bass striding on all fours. "I am fascinated by the history of our music. Jazz is a whorehouse," Bilal says of the historical sin and salvation of the form. "The original booty shake." Perhaps he shall educateWynton Marsalis and those conservative keepers of institution, naysayers of today's musical youth.