It’s been over two years since music fans have heard from soul crooner Bilal, but don’t think that he hasn’t been watching from behind the scenes and working just beyond your view. His newest studio LP In Another Life which hit stores in June and the New York City native along with his collaborator Adrian Younge have succeeded in curating a work of art that offers a different perspective on everyday situations — both personal and within today’s society. Bilal is set to change minds with this project, admitting that it was fairly easy to work with Younge as he provided the music and the singer illustrated the feeling with his words. This Bilal has matured notably since 2001 — yet still willing and able to continue in his quest for knowledge in music and always diligent in his search for “the answer.” Here, he speaks with DX about the process of recording In Another Life and why he wasn’t at all surprised by the depth in Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
Bilal Discusses His First Time Recording With Adrian Younge
DX: You haven’t said much to break this album down. Was that done on purpose?
Bilal: I just; do this stuff. Like, I’m not gonna tell people what it is. That kinda gives it away as an artist. I kinda make stuff to be a mirror for someone else, you know?
DX: How did you and Adrian Younge get started on a collaborative effort in the first place? What was the plan?
Bilal: We had no idea what the fuck we were doing. I just went over to his house to hang because we had just did a gig together at SXSW — this was like a year ago — and I met him in New York at a Roots jam session and I went to SXSW to sit in with his band [Vintage Door] and my last album that I recorded, I did it in Los Angeles and I was like “Man, I really like it out here while recording.” Because, since I’m on that east coast time, I wake up mad early, so I winded up going to the beach, seeing the sun come up… It was just really inspiring me. So I went over to Adrian’s just to hang and see what his lab looks like but we ended up doing mad tunes. I mean like, every day we were cranking out three songs. It was like some real weirdo shit. I’ve never made so many songs that fast. So by the end of the week, I was like, “I’ma just stay out here,” and that’s how we wound up recording the album.
DX: So everything flowed that easily? How long did it take you two to finish the whole project?
Bilal: Some songs would take us a few hours. I wouldn’t say that we’d do the whole tune as far as the music is concerned but, Adrian works a lot like I do in the respect that we write a lot from the piano so what ended up happening is that he’d play me a sketch of what he would be working on and it would be a track with just piano and drums. We would write a song to that, then after I left and came back to the east coast, he would have like 14, 15 sketches and that’s how we would work. We came away with like almost 30 sketches. We probably have a whole other album if he was to go and look at those sketches again.
DX: When you dropped A Love Supreme in 2013, I remember reading that you said, again, that you’re trying to get away from being labeled ‘neo-soul.’ Were you focused on that on this go-round as well?
Bilal: I create for me and it’s like my own therapy so in that respect, I hope that it’s therapy for someone else, because I feel like we’re all the same in that way. We all use music to kinda heal us and get us away from reality for a minute or bring some light to reality but it’s the same for me, it’s just that I’m creating it. When I go to make my music, I don’t have any holds barred because of that, because I fucking need it. And holding back on something would be me kinda holding back the answer that I’m looking for. I don’t hold back when I’m doing art because I’m trying to channel something spiritually.
DX: What’s been happening with you within the past couple of years? What experiences inspired you enough to be included on the new LP?
Bilal: I was influenced by a lot on this album, that’s why I named it In Another Life. What I do in my projects is that I like to write from a lot of different topics but a lot of the time I’d be drawing from my own life. On this album, some of the songs are like that… When I say In Another Life, that’s me putting myself in other perspectives or different people’s life perspectives and situations and writing from that so there’s some far out topics on there but they all kinda mesh in a way. A lot of those things come from me watching what’s happening socially in the world and what’s happening to my own friends. Talking about what’s going on in the world and me just being a satellite. I didn’t even know I was creating an album, I was just writing what I felt the music Adrian was creating was saying. This is the first album I’ve ever done where I didn’t participate as a musician. On my other records, there would be somewhere in there where I’m playing guitar or keyboard or [putting] a bassline somewhere, this time I really trusted another musician to accompany me, almost, so it was very different for me but I liked it. The album has one consistent sound to it.
Bilal Explains Los Angeles’ Effect On “In Another Life”
DX: Did this recording process make you want to say “goodbye” to the hustle and bustle of NYC and move out to LA? That’s what lures most East Coast artists out there, the fact that recording is so different in Cali.
Bilal: Yo. Aw man. I don’t know. Kinda. I did. But, I’m from the East Coast and I have a really big family and I don’t have any family in LA. It could be a second home though! Seems like every time I go out there I wind up staying longer and longer so it’d be nice to have a second home that I maybe share with another musician while I’m not there. I always thought about doing that in another part of the world too… Like Morocco, or somewhere in India, Paris or something like that. The scenery is just as dope as the music I might make.
DX: You couldn’t get any sleep out in Paris. I hear your fanbase is deep out there.
Bilal: Yeah! But you know, The scenery is cool. You feel like you’re in a movie or something, everything is so old. The concepts, the way people cherish landmarks out there is very different from America. We’re a consumer based country. Everything is in with the new and out with the old after a certain period of time but there you feel like you’re going back in time because a lot of the building are just as they were 500 years ago.
DX: When you’re writing, I know you pull from the lives of your friends. Describe your circle. You seem like the type to be good whether on the corner in NY or at a cafe in France. Are there knuckleheads in your crew?
Bilal: I guess my friends are pretty eclectic. Probably people that look stupid but wind up being really smart.
I have a bunch of funny characters in my circle but I’m also a loner. I like people that are intriguing and aren’t stereotypical because that’s the way I am.
Bilal Talks Relationship with Big K.R.I.T. & Kendrick Lamar
DX: Big K.R.I.T is on In Another Life. That was a nice surprise. How’d you get together?
Bilal: I met K.R.I.T at Raphael Saadiq’s studio because Raphael is like a big brother to everyone casually. He did my biggest hit ever, “Soul Sister.” But, he’s also a very big inspiration and like a godfather, big brother figure to Adrian so a few days in at the studio, Adrian was like, “Shit! We should go play this for Raphael.” And when we went in there, he was working with Big K.R.I.T. That first time we played the music for Raphael, K.R.I.T was listening in and after we played it and stuff he was like, “Dude, I wanna be a part of this.”
DX: It’s interesting that you’ve formed these relationships with rappers, from the very start alongside Jadakiss to K.R.I.T and Kendrick Lamar now.
Bilal: It’s dope. I like the cats that I work with that are younger than me because they’re pretty much on the same wavelength, you know? Of just that eclecticness and the things that they speak on. It’s really cool to be relevant like that, like I was always used to being the youngest person in the studio when I first signed, I was 19 and in the studio with Dilla and Common and all these cats that were like 5 and 6 years older than me. It’s kinda funny. Working with those cats, I learned so much from them. I like to see different people’s perspectives and their takes on “it.” We all are… Like, especially when I was working with Kendrick. Checking out the same stuff my uncles were playing for me. The influences of Parliament and Funkadelic, Zapp and all that stuff, it’s all Black American history. And it’s really dope to see someone else’s take on that but really similar at the same time.
DX: Did you see that last LP in Kendrick? I think a lot of people, fans or not, that album shocked everyone.
Bilal: Yeah! Um, I knew he had that in him from when I listened to his first album and just checking out the people that he works with and that he knows. Like Terrace Martin, one of the producers in his circle, I’ve known Terrace for years, from the jazz circle and Robert Glasper, Thundercat… I know those cats from the jazz world. Not even an R&B space so when he was working with those cats, I knew it was gon’ be something special and that intrigued me even more to be a part of it.
DX: Now he’s a part of your album. What do you want listeners to take from In Another Life?
Bilal: I’d like people to take from this album, something they can use in their life… Whether it’s a backdrop or it’s something that’ll intrigue them to look into further. I say a lot of things visually, and I say a lot of things lyrically and even musically through what Adrian is doing, you can kinda take a little piece of it and go a little further. That’s why in the beginning I didn’t want to say exactly what it is, because it’s cool to see people pick up on the things without me actually having to say it.