For the past decade, Bilal Oliver – better known as just Bilal – has been what you would call a cult R&B singer. While he has a loyal following of fans and has garnered enough of a respected reputation in the music biz that many A-list artists – Jay-Z, Erykah Badu, Common, The Roots, etc. – have called on him to perform on their albums, the indie-soul crooner hasn’t exactly blown up like, say, D’Angelo or Maxwell.
This may be because, during the last decade, the Philadelphia-born, Brooklyn-based Bilal only released two albums, his 2001 debut “1st Born Second” and 2010’s “Airtight’s Revenge.” There was actually a second album in between those two, “Love for Sale,” that didn’t get an official release. In 2006, while Bilal was recording the album, several tracks were leaked online and Interscope, Bilal’s label at the time, wanted to scrap the whole thing. “Everybody just winded up parting ways, you know,” says Bilal, 33, on the phone from New York. “And I was kind of at a standstill with my whole career.”
Oddly enough, the bootleg “Love” tracks became a sought-after item. “Cult followers started up their own Facebook pages of me,” he remembers. “MySpace people started making up their own fake MySpace pages and everybody started sharing the music and, you know, bootlegging this music around.”
Though Bilal was a man without a label, he managed to tour consistently, performing around the country and abroad. “I started out just playing live, you know, and I would say I’m a jazz musician first,” he says, noting that he was also coming up with music that would later appear on “Revenge.”
“So, I love to play and create on the spot and just play the music. But I also like to create too. Back then, I was used to just writing and performing and, when it was time to record, go into this expensive-ass studio and, you know, laying this stuff down. But there was a shift and everybody started to get Pro Tools and, then, the idea of laptops and putting everything on a laptop. So things started to get easier to record. I didn’t have to go into the big studios anymore. I could record while I was touring, you know.”
Following the same DIY production aesthetic he began on “Love for Sale,” “Revenge” was mostly produced by Bilal and his band members. “So, we kind of have a production crew that we’ve gotten – kind of developed a little sound, you know,” he says. “So this time around, we did the same thing. We just did it in Philadelphia, at my drummer’s studio and just kind of did that.”
Bilal continues that production style for his latest album, “A Love Surreal,” which was released late last month. Inspired by the artwork of Salvador Dali, Bilal combined the romantic lyricism he had on “Love for Sale” with the bold, musical moves he did on “Revenge.” He admits it’s taken him a long time to get to this point, where he can finally, confidently create the sort of music he wants and release it on his own – especially music he wanted to drop years ago. “I got up enough gall to put out ‘Airtight’s Revenge’ independently,” he says. “And so now we’re back here at ‘A Love Surreal,’ which kind of reminds you of ‘Love for Sale.’ ”
Now that he is officially three albums in, Bilal is proud of the cult success he’s achieved. He knows that people who listen to his work, whether they’re longtime fans or curious novices, are people willing to appreciate him and the music he’s putting out there. “What I want them to know most about me is that I make good art, you know,” he says. “I want people to be intrigued, to get to know more about me. I want that name to intrigue.”