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First Listen: Bilal, 'A Love Surreal'

NPR icon by Ann Powers
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"Funk is fun, and it's a state of mind," George Clinton once said. "But it's also all the ramifications of that state of mind." With this observation, one of funk's inventors sought to free the style from any constraints. Funk is lowdown music, designed for dancing, with a heavy bottom and a crazy streak; but an exceptional artist can also make funk that's quiet, beautiful, a real head trip. What makes music funky isn't necessarily a monster bassline. It's the spaciousness the sound creates, the hint of wildness luring even the prettiest melodies and arrangements into unexplored corners of consciousness.

Bilal Oliver's music is funky like that. The Philadelphia-born artist, a key collaborator in the progressive Soulquarians community with edge-walking artists like Robert Glasper and The Roots, specializes in lush, trippy songs best enjoyed on a lazy afternoon. Bilal can play the standard soulful stereotypes, crooning like a loveman or shouting heavenward as his longtime band puts down a danceable beat. But he prefers to go inside, exploring the contours of intense emotions with patience and psychedelic insight.

A Love Surreal, Bilal's fourth studio album, cultivates the stratospheric vibe of John Coltrane's spiritual jazz masterpiece, A Love Supreme, which inspired its title. Most songs here float around as if in zero gravity, anchored by subtle melodic hooks and producer Steve McKie's gently assertive drums. Bilal's tenor, taut and shiny as copper wire, spins out stories of complicated love. "Winning Hand," with its paranoid edge, recalls vintage D'Angelo; the druggy "Climbing" could be a lost Sly Stone cut; the bubble-machine beats of "West Side Girl" nod slyly toward Prince. Playing with these influences, Bilal always remains his own man, his vision grounded in fierce intelligence and a commitment to letting stories unfold all the way to their sometimes sorrowful, sometimes orgasmic end.

A Love Surreal contains upbeat songs about cultivating new romance and bluesy ones about how romance can dissolve. It has danceable tracks and deeply meditative ones. On a deeper level, in fact, these songs are about perception itself. Like his hero Jimi Hendrix, Bilal is a philosopher who uses music to explore and share an ever-unfolding vision of the universe. "You were born to fly," he exclaims in "Butterfly," this album's duet with pianist Glasper. As the music swirls like dandelion seeds around him, it's obvious that he's singing for himself, and for all of us, as he offers A Love Surreal — a sweet musical ride that turns out to be equipped with wings.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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