After Airtight's Revenge was issued in 2010, Bilal picked up a Grammy nomination for that album's "Little One" and continued to be one of the most valuable guest vocalists. He enhanced the Roots' Grammy-nominated Undun and Robert Glasper Experiment's Grammy-winning Black Radio, the latter of which includes brilliant work on a version of David Bowie's "Letter to Hermione." For his third official release, Bilal entered the studio with the intent to record an EP, but exited with an album — one that possibly tops his previous release and has a very different character.
Where Airtight's Revenge was all frayed nerves, sonically chunky, and dense, A Love Surreal is kicked back — lighter, slower, and steamier, more about flirting and lusting than personal and societal turmoil. Backed by much of the Airtight crew, Bilal produces all but four of the 14 cuts. That includes a deceptively wild 25-minute stretch flows from the knotted but playful "Back to Love," to the sneakily hooky "Winning Hand," to the spaced-out "Right at the Core," a deadly duet with King's Paris Strother in which resistance is futile ("You got me at the core"; "You tried to hate me, but your heart is still in it"). The album's latter half is just as remarkable. "Astray" is raw, bluesy soul, its longing tangible from the first lines: "Feelin' chills in the summertime, hot and cold/Something happens to the weather when you're gone." On "Butterfly," he reconnects with Glasper for a sparse ballad — incorporating delicate, otherworldly Moog accents from Masayuki Hirano — that should produce all-weather chills. It deserves to circulate as much Herbie Hancock's similarly lissome composition of the same title. As a producer and songwriter, Bilal has stepped up. As a vocalist, he remains supernaturally skilled and creative — swooping, diving, wailing, and sighing, all with complete command.