Bilal has ample reason to sing the blues. The charismatic soulman roared out of the gates with the support of heavyweights like Dr. Dre, J-Dilla, Common, and Mos Def on his brilliant 2001 debut 1st Born Second, but the album underperformed commercially, and a major-label follow-up was shelved. So it’s not surprising that the singer-songwriter’s long-in-the-works second album, Airtight’s Revenge, finds him in profound pain. Much of the dark, bruised album has the raw, vulnerable feel of an intense internal monologue. On “All Matter,” Bilal describes love as “cool on the outside, hot in the middle,” a line that applies to the album as well, with Bilal alternating between a delicate, Prince-like falsetto and an impassioned growl as he contemplates romantic and professional pain.
Airtight’s Revenge boasts a present-tense immediacy; there’s no psychological distance between Bilal and the psychological torment he sings about, which gives the album a brooding, airless intensity. But it isn’t all somber contemplation: On “Flying,” Bilal spins a dark, atmospheric pulp narrative, a moody character study about a lost woman abandoned and betrayed by men at every stage in her life. After 10 tracks of claustrophobic introspection and soul-searching, the album ends on an airy, tender note with “Think It Over.” Bilal is still in pain, but he at least leaves open the possibility of reconnection and transcending heartbreak. In this context, that almost represents a triumph.