R&B: Bilal, First Born Second ( * * * * out of four) Rarely has a new R&B artist been as steeped in musical history -- and at the same time unencumbered by convention -- as Philadelphia singer/songwriter Bilal Oliver. At first listen, it's easy to pick out his more obvious influences -- D'Angelo, Prince, George Clinton, Marvin Gaye -- but his roots go far deeper than that. Trained in both jazz and opera, he's adept at using his remarkably elastic voice to convey mood and feeling in ways that go beyond the mere expression of words. His creative blend of these various elements results in a sound at once familiar and fresh. Similarly, his lyrics offer unique perspectives on topics that have been touched on before, and while several top- flight producers -- James Mtume, James Poyser, Mike City and others - - contribute, it is clearly his vision. The Dr. Dre-produced Fast Lane explores the consequences of living on the edge; the introspective Sometimes examines his own hopes and fears; and the sanctified Slyde pays homage to Sly Stone. Sensual first single Soul Sista is a tribute to black women, while the title track addresses societal injustice. It also references the coming of a second generation of neo-soul artists who seem poised to take that music to a higher plane. -- Steve Jones
[Blu Cantrell]: Sings the blues with soul on seductive So Blu.
Bilal Oliver: On First Born Second, the singer/songwriter weaves his influences into a creative R&B tapestry that may prove influential.
[Willa Ford]: Newcomer Here today, perhaps gone tomorrow.
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