Long a favorite of fellow soul-music seekers such as the Roots and Erykah Badu, Bilal has never quite established a mainstream presence to match his acclaim. Following his 2001 debut, "1st Born Second," the Philadelphia-born singer couldn't even persuade his major label to release the album he'd intended as its follow-up. Yet the recent success of Frank Ocean, Miguel and the Weeknd suggests that R&B's fringes are moving toward the center, and that shift stands to benefit Bilal's latest studio album. It might finally be his time to shine.
The best parts of "A Love Surreal" warrant the increased attention. In "Back to Love" he flatters a date's shoes over a bubbling funk groove, while the squirmy "West Side Girl" demonstrates how completely Bilal has ingested the work of Prince. (Later, the tasty jazz-guitar licks in "Winning Hand" nod to a more unlikely inspiration: Steely Dan.)
The album washes near the end with a series of spacey slow jams, but then Bilal clears away the atmospheric clutter for "Butterfly," a stark ballad built around his soaring falsetto and rippling piano by recent Grammy winner Robert Glasper. "The struggle makes you fly," Bilal sings, and he's in a position to know.