The album debuted at number 106 on the US Billboard 200 chart, selling 4,600 copies in its first week. Although it charted modestly, Airtight's Revenge was well received by music critics upon its release. PopMatters ranked the album number 61 in its year-end list of best albums for 2010, calling it a "wildly inventive, wildly enjoyable album".
Bilal worked on the album for three years, according to an interview with The Root in September 2010. Bilal said, of Airtight's Revenge: "The concept beyond this album was really just to write short stories and dark tales of life in general. I used a lot and drew a lot from my own life and my own experiences, but I also took a lot of things from fiction and tried to make certain statements, from a love standpoint."Bilal said that his experiences with his leaked, unreleased album Love For Sale and the ensuing conflict with his then-record label (Interscope) led him to the "dark underworld" storytelling showcased in Airtight's Revenge. The track "Little One" references Bilal's eldest son's autism. The album features Bilal's famous falsetto and Afro-futuristic sound. The album was released earlier in the United Kingdom on September 6, 2010.
In an interview for The Root, Bilal elaborated on the album title's meaning, stating:
Well, the meaning of the title is reflecting all the stuff I've been through in the last nine years, with my album Love for Sale being bootlegged, and getting in conflict with my label and it never coming out. Just the whole long, drawn-out standstill behind it and how it kind of turned into a phoenix-rising type of deal, with people giving it mad love online and just became this underground type of sensation. So that's the real revenge, the music couldn't be shut down or hidden, but people got it and they loved it, just like I loved making it. That was the meaning behind 'revenge,' and 'Airtight' is just an old nickname that I got. Back in the day, I used to really be into reading Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim. I casually read both of their whole catalogs, and they inspired me as a songwriter also, but there's a book Iceberg Slim wrote and the title is Airtight Willie & Me. I kind of kept that name, 'Airtight.' And I think even back then I thought it would be dope to have an album with the title Airtight-something, so Airtight's Revenge sounded like a black exploitation film. It kind of fit the scenario.
The album cover (left) juxtaposed to the 1964 Malcolm X photo (right).
The album's cover art is a reference to the iconic photo of Malcolm X peering through his window while holding a M1 carbine rifle. Instead of a rifle, Bilal is holding a microphone, and instead of peering through his bedroom curtain, Bilal is peering through a heavy red stage curtain. In an interview with Parlour Magazine, Bilal elaborated on the message behind the album's cover art, stating:
I'm killing them with the words. This album was my version of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" and a retrospective look on the world and where we are today. There’s not a lot of music like that these days. It almost like some people today have the mental concept of if the world’s going to blow up tomorrow, let’s just get drunk, high and party and if shit blow up, we blow up… I made a record that was my retrospect on that mentality.
Airtight's Revenge received universal acclaim from music critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the album received an average score of 87, based on nine reviews.Allmusic writer Andy Kellman called it "one heavy, messy, dynamite album — one that could take a decade to be fully processed". Tyler Lewis of PopMatters cited the album as "a generation-defining masterwork of unflinching vision" and wrote that it is "all about texture and musicality. Songs more than shout or intimate their ideas, they envelop you fully, so you feel the full weight of what it is Bilal is talking about".Los Angeles Times writer Jeff Weiss noted its "formless floating funk" and praised Bilal as "ludicrously soulful and endearingly experimental", calling the album "a soothing anodyne to the often over-processed come-ons that pass for contemporary R&B".The Philadelphia Inquirer's A.D. Amorosi stated, "Bilal - the vocalist - opens the valves and bleats, glides, coos, and cajoles like Coltrane at his freest".
Mikael Wood of Time Out found it overlong and commented that "the second half especially bogs down with an abundance of noodly slow jams. But the strong stuff here is very strong".URB's Anupamistry wrote that it lacks "the cut-loose, flailing vocal work" of Bilal's previous work, but ultimately complimented its "more progressive, less structured, arranging".The A.V. Club's Nathan Rabin perceived a "brooding, airless intensity" and praised its "claustrophobic introspection and soul-searching".Sputnikmusic's Nick Butler said that, "musically, there are dozens of neo-soul records in the past three or four years that reach far beyond the limits of most of Airtight's Revenge [...] but nobody is writing or delivering lyrics like this. Emotionally, [it] is so revealing that it gets difficult to listen to". In a year-end article on overlooked albums in 2010, Edna Gundersen of USA Today described Airtight's Revenge a "buried jewel that really deserved a wider audience", commenting that "It's personal, idiosyncratic, complex, dense, sophisticated and messy, a thoroughly contemporary soul record with a defiant indie-rock sensibility, which is why it never found a home on radio".