Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Bilal Promises Mass Ejaculation ... or, at the Very Least, a Powerful Sex Vibe

Singer protracts all the sexy parts at a recent DNA Lounge performance.

By Rachel Swan
Wed, Jun 18, 2008 at 6:52 PM

B'nai Rebelfront's salacious introduction should have clued us into what would happen when R&B singer Bilal descended on DNA Lounge on a recent Sunday: "Ya'all get ready for Bilal," said Rebelfront, a characteristically nonchalant rock singer in a black wifebeater and fedora. What came next was the real coup de grace: "He's gonna make us all ejaculate, and shit, with his vibe."

At that point, audience members started cutting eyes and elbowing each other in disbelief. "'He's gonna make us all ejaculate, and shit?' Did he really say ejaculate?" It was the first curve ball of the evening, after a roughly forty-five-minute set of Rebelfront's meticulously-crafted rock compositions (all characterized by their hard, crusty basslines, Van Hunt-ish vocal modulations, and new wave-style chord changes). Though Rebelfront's vato stage costume (he resembled the Joey Jeremiah character from De Grassi Junior High) and velvety cadence won over several women in the front row, he wasn't the night's most infectious performer — the singer had a habit of not counting off between songs and inserting a complicated-ass electric guitar solo where the bridge was supposed to be. The real treat so far was Rebelfront's incredible four-piece band, featuring Mike Blankenship on keyboards and Dewey Tucker on bass — just killin' it! And then there was the promise of mass ejaculation.

It turned out Rebelfront wasn't too far off. Bilal, whose giant horn-rimmed glasses, button-up polo T and straw hat pegged him as someone who's either incredibly campy, or a total dork — possibly both — managed, despite the apparel, to exude a really powerful sex vibe. As he'd already proved performing at Oakland Yoshi's last fall, he's one of those people who could walk in a room where nobody knew him, and still convince everyone that he must be somebody. The thing about Bilal is he could run circles around most mainstream R&B crooners: He was trained as an opera singer, came up learning standards and later immersed himself in the New York downtown scene — he now tours with Blue Note pianist (and fellow New School alum) Robert Glasper, another rising star who has his feet in both the hip-hop and jazz worlds (his 2007 album In My Element incorporated J Dilla samples and a compelling reinterpretation of Radiohead over a Herbie Hancock vamp).

The two cats reunited that night at DNA for what would be an incredible two-hour set, with Tone Whitfield on bass, Steve Mckie on drums, and Bilal singing funny — and sometimes anguished — ballads over Glasper's downtown-style chord changes. The breakdowns were killin' —often consisting of spare drumbeats against Glasper's two-handed piano solos — though in this case, Bilal was clearly the main attraction. Moaning, ululating, and every once in a while unleashing a guttural Rick James-style howl, the singer flaunted his incredible vocal range (he's that rare crooner who can oscillate between baritone and falsetto registers). On at least half the songs he indulged in the type of marathon-stretch, vibrato high notes that singers often bust when they just want to show off their chops (recall Erykah Badu's recent performance at the Paramount). For most of the set he performed what must have been new album cuts, because the hooks sounded unfamiliar (save for an Isely brothers cover and a tribute to deceased beatmaker J Dilla, which came close to the end), though the audience appeared to be singing along anyway. He went into a protracted vamp based on Billy Stewart's "I Do Love You," which shifted into the lyric, That girl is soo-oo hot, chanted to the tune of a familiar KRS One sample. He even got the audience to clap out a son clave beat that actually demanded a sense of rhythm.

But for all his talent, Bilal's a total ham, and the hamminess sometimes degrades his stage performance. In many songs he'd start free-style-crooning, making the lyrics progressively more lurid, to the point of hilarity (i.e., Baby, do you remeeeeember… I said do you remember when you liked to get on top? …Do you remember when I hit it from the back? and I like you but I just can't be held down …I just gotta keep it real, I need 5-10 women … I need 10-11 women, nah, you know what? I'm working on 31 women… I need 50 women all at the same time!) He introduced his band as "the Minerals," a name he might have come up with on the spot (since it eluded all Google searches), and characterized them as — wait — "Tyrannosaurus awesome?" (The singer looked over at Glasper for help. Glasper made back-pedaling motions. "Tyrannosaurus — uh, I'm still working on the name." He walked away for a moment, as though for dramatic effect, then picked the mic up again: "Tyrannaawesomeness Rex!" (This got a big laugh, mostly from the band members).

Granted, the show's main highlight — besides that gorgeous cover of the Isley Brothers' "In the Dark" — occurred when Bilal pulled a woman up onstage from the front row. She wore a sundress that accentuated her hourglass figure, and appeared to be, uh, in a really loose mood. When Bilal asked the woman to sing, she declined at first, then grabbed the mic and belted a real gutsy, melismatic moan that was actually mostly in key. Feigning astonishment, Bilal demanded to know the girl's name. "Lorraine," she said. "Lorraine is fuckin' awesome!" Bilal yelled to the crowd, eliciting cheers as he picked Lorraine up and twirled her around. No one could figure out whether or not Lorraine was a plant or just a happy coincidence, but whatever the case, the gag worked well enough to throw us all for a loop.

By the end of the show, Bilal had chucked his straw hat, shirt and glasses, and sang two encores practically desnudo. It's unclear whether everyone in the crowd was creaming panties at that point, since many of us had to close are eyes to avoid the sheer campiness of it all. Still, B'nai's statement endured: If ever a neo-soul singer could make several dozen people "ejaculate and shit" on a Sunday, Bilal was the one.

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