Bilal (American singer)

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Oliver at Central Park SummerStage in New York, 2015
Oliver at Central Park SummerStage in New York, 2015
Background information
Birth nameBilal Sayeed Oliver
Also known as
  • Airtight
Born (1979-08-23) August 23, 1979 (age 43)
OriginPhiladelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
  • Singer
  • songwriter
  • record producer
  • Vocals
  • keyboards
  • guitar
Years active1999–present
Formerly of, Bilal on Twitter

Bilal Sayeed Oliver[3] (born August 23, 1979) is an American singer, songwriter, and record producer. He is an independent artist, noted for his wide vocal range, work across multiple genres, and intense live performances.

Upon his initial signing to Interscope Records, Bilal released his debut single "Soul Sista" in 2000.[5] He has released four studio albums to critical success,[6] while his unreleased but widely leaked second album Love for Sale also found wide acclaim among critics and listeners.[7] He was a member of the Soulquarians, an experimental black music collective active from the late 1990s to early 2000s.[8] He has been well received, both nationally and internationally, with an extensive list of collaborations including Kendrick Lamar, Common, Erykah Badu, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Guru, Kimbra, J Dilla, Robert Glasper, and The Roots.

In August 2020, during the COVID-19 lockdown, Bilal wrote and recorded his first EP, Voyage-19, over the course of three days and in collaboration with various musicians in remote experimental sessions, which were streamed live on YouTube. The resulting three-track EP was released digitally the following month, with revenues of its sale and accompanying donations given to the participating artists, many of whom had been struggling financially due to the pandemic.

Early life[edit]

Bilal was born Bilal Sayeed Oliver in Germantown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He grew up in a religiously mixed household, his mother being Christian and his father Muslim. When he was 11 he became choir director at his mother's church, and at 14 he formed a group and performed gigs at the Blue Moon Cafe in Philadelphia.[9] As a formative experience, he cites his father taking him to the city's jazz clubs. "I used to have to sit in the back where the cigarette machine was. They had a curtain they could put over me just in case the police came", he recalls to Beat magazine:

I remember sitting back there watching all of these different bands who really intrigued me a lot. I liked the way the cats dressed, the way they talked. I got to see Terrence Blanchard, Kenny Kirkland, Jeff 'Tain' Watts. I was a 13-year-old – I made up my mind then that I wanted to be in music some kind of way.[10]

Bilal graduated from the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts and then attended New York City's The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, where he met the pianist Robert Glasper on his first day.[11] With Glasper, he frequented a number of jazz clubs in the city and eventually the Wetlands Preserve nightclub, where he connected with musicians of the Soulquarians collective: the Roots, Common, Erykah Badu, and Mos Def. Concurrently, Bilal frequented jam sessions set up by New School professors and students. At one such event, he met Aaron Comess, a musician from the pop-rock band Spin Doctors. The two went on to improvise together at Comess's home and produced a demo that was later heard by Interscope Records, who signed Bilal to a record contract.[12]


1999–2001: Beginnings with the Soulquarians and 1st album[edit]

Common and Mos Def (pictured in 1999) appeared on Bilal's debut album and were his colleagues in the Soulquarians musical collective.

Bilal began to familiarize himself with the music scene in New York City, meeting prominent recording artists such as Common, The Roots, and Erykah Badu from the Soulquarians collective. Eventually, he was discovered by Aaron Comess from the Spin Doctors during an after-school jam session. It was with him that Bilal recorded his demo and eventually landed a record deal with Interscope Records.[13]

In 2001, Bilal released his debut album 1st Born Second, which featured contributions from the Soulquarians as well as high-profile producers such as Dr. Dre and J Dilla.[14] The album peaked at number 31 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, and it has sold 319,000 copies.[15] 1st Born Second received universal acclaim from music critics; and holds a score of 82 out of 100 at Metacritic.[16] The album earned rave reviews from publications including The Village Voice, Chicago Sun-Times, and USA Today,[17][18][19] and it also received comparisons to the music of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone, Prince, and Curtis Mayfield.[16][20][21][22]

The album showcased a wide variety, from the emotionally charged fan-favorite "Soul Sista", which peaked at No. 18 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts, to the political viewpoints of "Fast Lane" and "Second Child".[23] Bilal managed to gain a sizable following and high attendance at his live shows,[3] as well as much acclaim and respect from his peers, many of whom noted his range and ability to sing in a freeform style, and his classically trained falsetto.[3] The soulful feel of the album caused Bilal to be labeled as "neo-soul". Bilal stresses that this term does not fit, and throughout his career, his expansion in music and pushing of boundaries proved his point.[24]

2001–2011: Love for Sale saga and Airtight's Revenge[edit]

Bilal performing at the A38 concert hall in Budapest, 2008

In the following years Bilal continued to appear on projects by other artists of both high profile and avant garde, while recording and developing his follow-up set to be released on Interscope Records and featuring contributions primarily from producers Dr. Dre and J Dilla. These plans proved to be changeable and the final result, Love for Sale, was an album that appeared to be built around Bilal's own musicianship. Bilal switched it up on Love For Sale, which includes live instrumentation and a vibe completely new and different from its predecessor.[25]

Bilal's anticipation for the album was shot down, however, after receiving disapproval from Interscope. Unwilling to start from scratch, Bilal continued to push his LP. However, near the album's completion, the album was leaked in its entirety on the Internet.[25] Interscope shelved the album indefinitely, hinting that it saw little commercial potential in it. The event sent Bilal into a period of distress,[26] and he was considering quitting music; however, Love for Sale received over half a million downloads on the Internet,[27] and Bilal began touring, despite there not being a proper release of the album. His concerts were known for being intense and inspiring awe among audiences.[28]

On a national level, he's still relatively unknown. Among peers, he remains an icon.

— Rachel Swan (East Bay Express, 2008)[29]

In 2008, Bilal began recording for his next album.[30] After nine years without a properly released album, Bilal made a comeback on September 14, 2010, with Airtight's Revenge, a sophomore LP released under independent record label Plug Research. Bilal describes it as a retrospective: an album that explores his experiences and things he has learned since his last release. An experimental album, Airtight's Revenge blends jazz, hip-hop, electronic, rock, soul, and blues into one raw, genuine collection of music.[31] The album's single, "Little One", earned Bilal a nomination a 2011 Grammy Award nomination in the category of Best Urban/Alternative Performance. That year, he also contributed as a guest performer to the Roots' Grammy-nominated album Undun (2011) and the Robert Glasper Experiment's Grammy-winning Black Radio (2012).[3]

2012–2019: Further independent albums and guest projects[edit]

Bilal (center right) at the 2011 Stockholm Jazz Festival in Sweden

In 2012, Bilal revealed plans for a new album under a new label, eOne Music.[32] During several interviews, he described the new project as "a lot warmer and [more] sensual" than its conceptual predecessor.[33] The new album, titled A Love Surreal, has a more acoustic sound, as Bilal worked closely with his entire band. To set up the album's release, on December 5, 2012, he released a mixtape titled The Retrospection via Facebook[34] and then the album's lead single "Back to Love" six days later. The song's music video was released on January 8, 2013, telling the story of a drug-addicted love doctor who ironically uses the advice he gives to his patients to help his own relationship.[35] The song sets the tone for the album, which Bilal says embodies "the whole process [of love]: meeting, the break-up, [and] the get-back-together". A Love Surreal was released on February 26, 2013.[36]

With the release of A Love Surreal, Bilal immediately achieved commercial success, debuting at No. 1 on iTunes' R&B Chart.[37] On Billboard, the album debuted at No. 17 on the Independent Albums Chart, No. 19 on the R&B Albums Chart, and No. 103 on the Billboard 200, ranking higher than its predecessor, Airtight's Revenge. The album also received numerous high reviews, including an 8/10 from SPIN magazine,[38] 4.5/5 stars from Allmusic, and 4/4 stars from USA Today.[39]

In between albums, Bilal appeared on albums by a variety of recording artists, including Kimbra, Otis Brown III, Kat Dahlia, and Slum Village.[3] His guest contributions to Kendrick Lamar's third album To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) helped create buzz for Bilal's fifth album, In Another Life,[40] released in 2015 to critical success.[6] In an essay on the Soulquarians published that year, Michael A. Gonzales traces the collective's impact to Bilal's contemporary contributions: "Listening to Kendrick Lamar's newest album To Pimp a Butterfly, Bilal has transformed himself into an arty Nate Dogg for the post-Soulquarian generation that includes Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding and, now, Kendrick.[8] Also writing that year, Exclaim! journalist Kevin Jones said, "Bilal's years spent in career limbo feel like a relatively minor blip in the wake of the many artistically ambitious personal releases and guest projects the uncompromising singer has managed to string together in recent years."[40]

I always used to tell cats, 'I'm a soul singer; I'm a blues singer.' But you don't really know pain. It's just pseudo pain when you're young. You've got to live life to know pain.

— Bilal (2016)[41]

In 2019, Bilal contributed to Philip Bailey's single "We're a Winner", a recording of the Impressions' 1967 song of the same name. Bailey said of Bilal, who sang guest vocals and appeared in the music video: "Bilal was one of those singers who uses his [voice] like an instrument. And he's very explorative with his vocal [range]. He's played and he sang on things with more jazzy guys, too. I thought that our voices — obviously having those falsettos — would complement one another. And with that one, we actually sent him the files. I wasn't even in the studio with Bilal when he did his stuff."[42]

2020: Live-streamed EP amid pandemic[edit]

In August 2020, over the course of a three-day weekend, Bilal live streamed his creation of an experimental three-song EP for HighBreedMusic, a Brooklyn recording studio and digital music channel. He wrote, recorded, and produced one song each day, totaling 54 hours, in collaboration with producer Tariq Khan and 30 other musicians, including Erykah Badu, Robert Glasper, Tone Whitfield, Khemist, Simon Mavin (of Hiatus Kaiyote), Keyon Harrold, Madison McFerrin, Marcus Strickland, Yahzarah Sinclair, Raymond Angry, Ben Williams, Brandee Younger, Big Yuki, Melanie Charles, Marcus Gilmore, and Louis Cato. Each participant worked remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The stream simultaneously showed the EP's artwork being made, with a group of three visual artists enlisted for each song, including Angelbert Metoyer and Shanina Dionna.[43][44]

The EP was available to be pre-ordered during the weekend of the live stream, with sales and optional donations given to the participating artists, a number of whom were in financial difficulties because of the pandemic. On September 6, it was released on Bandcamp as a three-track digital download titled Voyage-19, for a price of $6.99, the profits of which were also distributed among the participants.[43][44]





  • Grenique[45] on "Let Go", "You Say" and "Love Within" from Black Butterfly




  • Scratch, on "Square One" from The Embodiment of Instrumentation
  • Talib Kweli on "Waitin' for the DJ" & "Talkin' to You" from Quality
  • Da Ranjahz & Ras Kass on "Da Dopest"
  • Jaguar Wright on "I Can't Wait" from Denials Delusions and Decisions
  • Tweet on "Best Friend" from Southern Hummingbird
  • Cherokee, on "A Woman Knows" from Soul Parade
  • John Ellis, on "John Brown's Gun", "Nowny Dreams" and "The Lonely Jesus" from Roots, Branches & Leaves



  • Boney James's "Better With Time", from Pure
  • Robert Glasper on "Maiden Voyage" and "Don't Close Your Eyes" from Mood
  • Max Herre on "Playground" from Max Herre


  • Robert Glasper on "Chant" from Canvas
  • Luvpark on "Fade Away" and "Luvtheme" from Luvpark














with Common
  • "Funky For You" (Common & Jill Scott) from Like Water for Chocolate
  • "Nag Champa (Afrodesiac for the World)" from Like Water for Chocolate
  • "The 6th Sense" from Like Water for Chocolate
  • "Heaven Somewhere" from Electric Circus
  • "Aquarius" from Electric Circus
  • "Star69 (PS With Love)" from Electric Circus
  • "Faithful" (Common & John Legend) from Be
  • "It's Your World/Pop's Reprise" from Be
  • "U, Black Maybe" from Finding Forever
  • "Misunderstood" from Finding Forever
  • "Play Your Cards Right" from Finding Forever
  • "Joy and Peace" from Black America Again
  • "Home" from "Black America Again"
  • "A Bigger Picture Called Free" from "Black America Again"
  • "Letter To The Free" from "Black America Again"

Awards and nominations[edit]

Year Awards Category Work Outcome
2010 Grammy Awards Best Urban/Alternative Performance "All Matter" Nominated
2011 "Little One" Nominated
2016 Album of the Year To Pimp a Butterfly Nominated
Best Rap/Sung Performance "These Walls" Won


Little One Tour (2011)


  1. ^ Lindsey, Craig D. (February 12, 2013). "Five Lesser-Known Soul Men Worth Your Attention". The Village Voice. Retrieved January 23, 2021.
  2. ^ Price, Emmett George (2010). Encyclopedia of African American Music. Vol. 3. ABC-CLIO. p. 656. ISBN 978-0313341991.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Kellman, Andy. "Bilal Biography". Allmusic. Retrieved April 16, 2020.
  4. ^ "Music". Willamette Week. April 13, 2016. p. 33. Retrieved August 20, 2020 – via Issuu.
  5. ^ Bilal (September 30, 2010). "Jazz and Soul Singer Bilal Oliver". The Sound of Young America (Podcast). No. 143. Interviewed by Jesse Thorn. Maximum Fun. Archived from the original on January 23, 2021. Retrieved January 23, 2021.
  6. ^ a b "Bilal Music Profile". Metacritic. Retrieved July 22, 2020.
  7. ^ Anon. (January 31, 2013). "Bilal 'A Love Surreal' CD Release, Tuesday, February 12 at Highline Ballroom" (Press release). Carolyn McClair Public Relations. Retrieved July 20, 2020 – via All About Jazz.
  8. ^ a b Gonzales, Michael (March 19, 2015). "Love, Peace and Soulquarians". soulhead. Retrieved August 20, 2020.
  9. ^ Swan, Rachel (August 20, 2008). "Rough-Style Romancer | Music | Oakland, Berkeley & the Bay Area". Retrieved March 29, 2012.
  10. ^ Wild, David (April 10, 2013). "Bilal". Beat Magazine. No. 1366. Retrieved August 22, 2020 – via Issuu.
  11. ^ Gonzales, Michael (February 6, 2013). "Bilal's Back, Better Than Before". Philadelphia Weekly. Retrieved July 21, 2020 – via Issuu.
  12. ^ Reyes, Andres (Autumn 2010). "Cool on the Outside". Shook. No. 9. Retrieved August 19, 2020 – via Issuu.
  13. ^ "Bilal". Retrieved March 29, 2012.
  14. ^ [1][dead link]
  15. ^ Herrera, Monica. Bilal To Release Electro-Jazz Rock Album In 2010. Billboard. Retrieved on January 3, 2010.
  16. ^ a b 1st Born Second (2001): Reviews. Metacritic. Retrieved on August 12, 2009. Archived 2009-08-16.
  17. ^ Columnist. "Review: 1st Born Second". Chicago Sun-Times: August 12, 2001. Archived from the original on August 12, 2009. (Transcription of original review at talk page)
  18. ^ Jones, Steve. "Review: 1st Born Second". USA Today: D.08. July 31, 2001.
  19. ^ Cepeda, Raquel. Review: 1st Born Second Archived October 17, 2012, at the Wayback Machine. The Village Voice. Retrieved on August 12, 2009.
  20. ^ Columnist. Review: 1st Born Second[dead link]. The Independent. Retrieved on August 12, 2009.
  21. ^ Product Page: 1st Born Second. Muze. Retrieved on August 26, 2009.
  22. ^ Caramanica, Jon. Review: 1st Born Second. Blender. Retrieved on March 29, 2010.
  23. ^ "1st Born Second by Bilal @ – Shop, Listen, Download". July 31, 2001. Retrieved March 29, 2012.
  24. ^ "Bilal Talks His Comeback, Neo-Soul & Dr. Dre To the.LIFE Files!". Archived from the original on March 28, 2012. Retrieved March 29, 2012.
  25. ^ a b "Bilal: I Wanted To Quit Making Music!". The Urban Daily. August 19, 2010. Retrieved September 14, 2013.
  26. ^ "Blog Archive » Bilal Talks Sophomore LP, Why He Was Never So-Called Neo-Soul". Gangstarr Girl. September 13, 2010. Retrieved March 29, 2012.
  27. ^ "BIO – BILAL". Archived from the original on October 4, 2013.
  28. ^ Kangas, Chaz (October 3, 2010). "Bilal: Airtight's Revenge". Spectrum Culture. Retrieved August 21, 2020.
  29. ^ Swan, Rachel (August 20, 2008). "Rough-Style Romancer". East Bay Express. Retrieved August 18, 2020.
  30. ^ McKie, Steve (September 14, 2010). "Meet Bilal's Producer Steve McKie". NODFACTOR.COM (Interview). Interviewed by Jerry L. Barrow. Archived from the original on March 23, 2011. Retrieved March 23, 2011.
  31. ^ "Music – Review of Bilal – Airtight's Revenge". BBC. Retrieved March 29, 2012.
  32. ^ [EXCLUSIVE] Bilal Finds New Label, New Attitude – Entertainment & Culture. EBONY. Retrieved on March 7, 2013.
  33. ^ Artist to Artist: Bilal–Supersonic Soul. Soul Train. Retrieved on March 7, 2013.
  34. ^ Hey everybody, as .... Facebook. Retrieved on March 7, 2013.
  35. ^ V Premiere! Bilal "Back To Love" (Video). Vibe (January 8, 2013). Retrieved on March 7, 2013.
  36. ^ Video: Bilal's "Welcome to A Love Surreal". Potholes in My Blog. Retrieved on March 7, 2013.
  37. ^ "BILAL's A LOVE SURREAL is #1 selling on ITUNES in R& B! | BILAL". April 14, 2013. Archived from the original on July 22, 2013. Retrieved April 20, 2013.
  38. ^ Mlynar, Phillip. "Bilal, 'A Love Surreal' (eOne) | SPIN | Albums | Critical Mass". SPIN. Retrieved April 20, 2013.
  39. ^ "Listen Up: Bilal, Mavericks, Ivan and Alyosha". February 26, 2013. Retrieved April 20, 2013.
  40. ^ a b Jones, Kevin (June 26, 2015). "Bilal In Another Life". Exclaim!. Retrieved August 19, 2020.
  41. ^ Vaziri, Aidin (September 6, 2016). "Bilal embraces artistic freedom the 2nd time around". SFGate. Retrieved September 10, 2020.
  42. ^ Sanfiorenzo, Dimas (September 2019). "Earth, Wind & Fire's Philip Bailey Talks About His Latest Album, Reveals Video for 'We're A Winner' Single W/ Bilal [Interview + Premiere]". Okayplayer. Retrieved September 12, 2020.
  43. ^ a b Threadcraft, Torry (August 7, 2020). "Bilal Is Currently Live Streaming Himself Recording A New EP". Okayplayer. Retrieved September 12, 2020.
  44. ^ a b Threadcraft, Torry (September 6, 2020). "Check Out Bilal And HighBreedMusic's 'VOYAGE-19' Album". Okayplayer. Retrieved September 12, 2020.
  45. ^ "Black Butterfly: Grenique: Music". Amazon. 1999. Retrieved April 20, 2013.
  46. ^ "Letter to Hermione (Ft. Bilal)". iTunes. Blue Note Records. Archived from the original on October 12, 2013.

External links[edit]