Bilal has never been an artist comfortable with repeating formulas. Since his debut over a decade ago, the Philadelphian singer-songwriter-instrumentalist has showcased a musical sensibility that is creatively restless and progressive, undoubtedly indebted to legendary figures like Stevie Wonder, Prince, Santana and Marvin Gaye; but also with an eye toward the future and an ambition that many of his contemporaries lacked. His latest album, A Love Surreal, is a concept album that follows the cycle of a romantic relationship; and Bilal drew inspiration from a myriad of sources — from the John Coltrane-referencing album title, to the paintings of Salvadore Dali.

“I wanted to make music like [Dali’s paintings,]” he explains. “To build a world. It felt like he made a whole world. [I wanted] to make music that has mad dimensions.” And using the framework of a relationship proved to give his latest album a platform for him to explore those dimensions. “When you look at the cycle of a relationship, you can use the music to go a lot of different places. A relationship has a lot of ups and downs. It was great to use that storyline to make a record,” he says.

“This album was definitely geared more toward lovers and a sensual atmosphere,” he shares. “I’m speaking about passion and love on this record. I wouldn’t say it’s subdued — but it’s sensual.”

Bilal welcomed the opportunity to craft a more sensual work on the heels of his edgier previous LP, 2010’s Airtight’s Revenge. He admits that that project was born out of frustration and experimentation, a result of his contractual battles with his former label, Interscope. “That was my selfish record,” the singer acknowledges. “I didn’t even know that album was going to come out. We were just doing music in the studio. That was just me talking to myself, really. My reasons for putting that album out was to try and see if a lot of old contractual things that I’d been dealing with in my career were over or not. I was really just putting that album out to test the water and see if I would be hit with crazy legal stuff.”

Stereo Williams

Todd "Stereo" Williams, entertainment writer based in New York City. He co-founded Thirty 2 Oh 1 Productions, an indie film company.