It's 2001, but for the artists in what has been serviceably dubbed the neo-soul movement, it might as well be 1971, when Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Gamble and Huff, and others regularly stretched the boundaries of the soul form. Not that today's players are throwbacks; the sound does not remain the same. But ever since the debut albums by D'Angelo and Erykah Badu, an entire school of musicians has awakened to the idea that the best approach to tired R&B formulas might be to reject them and look elsewhere for inspiration. With his impressive debut 1st Born Second, Bilal announces his intentions to do the same. Ending with the unnecessary tag, "This is another Dr. Dre production" (as if anyone could mistake the source), the cautionary first single "Fast Lane" captures Bilal at his best. With a smooth, flexible voice and a muscular sound, he proves he's comfortable with contemporary hip-hop without seeming beholden to trends. Enlisting big-name producers (Dre, Soulquarians) and the occasional hip-hop performer (as on the Mos Def and Common-assisted "Reminisce"), Bilal lets the sound dominate his debut's unimpeachable first half, applying it to subjects as diverse as everyday struggles (on the rapid-fire "All That I Am") and unworthy women ("Sally," another Dre production). On 1st Born's second half, Bilal expands his scope to everything from reggae ("Home") to scat ("Love Poems"). Aware of the grand tradition he wants to join, Bilal sounds determined to pay tribute to every corner of it. The overreaching inevitably hurts the disc's consistency in spots, but it's easy to admire Bilal's ambition, and when it works, it works well. He can't quite do it all, but he does what he can as well as anyone out there, making 1st Born Second sound like the first highlight in a compelling career.