On his recent album, To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar surrounds himself with a varied constellation of musicians who are sourced from distinct yet blurring disciplines. Genre synthesist Robert Glasper plays piano. General polyglot Thundercat supplies vocals and dense and clustering basslines. Terrace Martin is all over the record in shifting capacities, serving as writer, producer, and saxophonist. Each contributes considerably to the album’s ambiguous and fascinating shape.
Another musician who features heavily on the record is R&B singer and multi-instrumentalist Bilal. He appears in flourishes on “Institutionalized” and “These Walls,” forming creases of harmony in the songs with Sonnymoon member Anna Wise. He inhabits an even more uncertain and molecular space on “Hood Politics”; on occasion the track drains entirely into his vocals, which are threaded complexly into small, glottal vortexes.
In 2010 Bilal released Airtight’s Revenge. It was his first album in nine years, after his previous project, Love for Sale, had been shelved by Interscope. On first listen it’s beguiling; drums, bass, and synths all collide with each other and form irreducible knots. It’s difficult to situate oneself in the rhythm of “Cake & Eat It Too”; it’s funky, but it’s the kind of funk that continually shatters and restores itself, as if filmed in reverse. The bass player on Airtight’s Revenge? Stephen Bruner, aka Thundercat. The person occasionally applying a filigree of Rhodes piano to the warping texture of these songs? Robert Glasper.
Then there’s Bilal, trying to swim through this shifting Euclidean space. His voice is granular; it has a sandy quality that implies erosion but also the refinement of time. Sometimes he pulls his voice through layers of distortion, until it pierces the mix in magnified blooms. His phrases are so precisely cropped and that it sometimes seems as if he is simply talking in harmonic clusters. ...