A Love Surreal is the third studio album by American neo soul singer Bilal, released on February 26, 2013, by eOne. He recorded the album for five months at various studios with most of the recording crew from his 2010 album Airtight's Revenge, including producer Shafiq Husayn, drummer Steve McKie, and pianist Robert Glasper. Bilal wrote and produced most of the album, which he titled in reference to his unreleased album Love for Sale and John Coltrane's 1965 album A Love Supreme.
A Love Surreal explores different stages of love in a cycle of slow-burning songs that Bilal deliberately wrote for female listeners. Its songs eschew the personal and societal themes of Airtight's Revenge in favor of upbeat songs about cultivating a romance and meditative laments on its dissolution. Bilal wanted to make the album sound multidimensional and drew on the surrealist art of Salvador Dalí for inspiration.
Bilal premiered the album's music in his performance at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. Its lead single "Back to Love" was released on December 11, 2012. A Love Surreal received widespread acclaim from critics, who praised Bilal's expressive singing, clever songwriting, and mellow musical style.
After writing his 2010 album Airtight's Revenge with themes intended for male listeners, Bilal wrote A Love Surreal for female listeners with lyrics about love. He described writing the album as a surrealistic exploration of love. He was inspired by the surrealism of Spanish painter Salvador Dalí, after viewing a 2005 Salvador Dalí exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He also drew on the shelving of his unreleased album Love for Sale, which inspired A Love Surreal's title. "For the longest I was supposed to sign with [eOne] and actually put Love for Sale out, but you know, things happen", Bilal told Okayplayer. "It's surreal that I'm right back at the same spot about to put out a record with them. Also, surreal – the word surrealism – my inspiration for this record, I got a lot of concepts from Salvador Dali and the way he made his art pieces, it almost looks three-dimensional, and I wanted to do that with the sound of this album. So this record is almost like a sonic art piece." Bilal had wanted to sign with eOne because of the artistic freedom the label had given fellow recording artist Dwele. The album's title was also inspired by John Coltrane's 1965 album A Love Supreme.
After preparing it on his Logic recording software, Bilal recorded A Love Surreal in five months, which he said was the fastest he had recorded an album. Recording sessions for the album took place at Brooklyn Recording and Breeding Grounds Studio in Brooklyn, New York; Lalabelle Music and Lamont Caldwell's Bedroom in Clifton, New Jersey; Pine Studios in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Prime Rib Productions and The Krusty Lab in Los Angeles, California. He recorded his vocals at a beach-side studio in Los Angeles. Bilal originally intended to record A Love Surreal as an extended play when he entered the studio, but, according to him, "it was just so easy that the music started to flow ... by the fifth day we were like 'damn, we made a mistake and wrote five extra songs". He worked with most of the recording crew from Airtight's Revenge and produced 10 of the album's 14 songs. Bilal viewed that his role as a producer had progressed from his 2001 debut 1st Born Second to A Love Surreal, which he felt best conveyed his vision for the album's sound.
Bilal recorded the song "Butterfly" with Robert Glasper, a friend of his since college who had played on each of his albums. Bilal had previously worked with Glasper on the latter's 2012 album Black Radio. For the song "Back to Love", Bilal originally programmed the music's drums on his Logic, but decided to record them live after bringing in other musicians at Pine Studios in Philadelphia. While recording "Astray", he persuaded his drummer to play in the parking lot and record him live, which he recalled in an interview for The Huffington Post: "I just had this feeling in my head like, 'man, I want this shit to feel big!' And when I would park my car in the parking lot, the acoustics in there made you feel like was a Catholic church with all of the sounds echoing off of everything."
A Love Surreal comprises a cycle of slow-burning songs about different stages of love, including infatuation, seduction, romance, estrangement, longing, renewal, and existential peace. Bilal's intimate lyrics address love's ephemeral nature and how to sustain happiness. It veers between danceable, upbeat songs about cultivating a new romance and bluesy, meditative songs about how romances dissolve. In contrast to Airtight's Revenge, A Love Surreal deals more with feelings of lust and flirting rather than personal and societal issues.
The album is also lighter and mellower musically than its predecessor, and deemphasizes electronics in its production. The songs feature subtle melodic hooks, muted drum programming, glimmering keyboards, sparse indie rock guitars, and defined jazz piano. Evan Rytlewski of Paste observes unconventional applications of jazz throughout A Love Surreal, but characterizes it as a neo soul album due to its "heady, post-Dilla hip-hop thump and periodic psychedelic drift"; Q magazine called its music "cosmic R&B". The songs are interspersed with long instrumental sections during which Bilal croons wordlessly, while doubling and tripling his voice. His singing veers between a soulful baritone and supple falsetto. Bilal's sense of melody and harmony is informed by past operatic and jazz training, and his reverence for atmospheric psychedelic soul albums.
The album's opening series of songs have straightforward lyrics. On "Back to Love", Bilal flatters his date's shoes and is backed by a bubbling funk groove. The song draws on the music of Prince, while the jazz guitar licks of "Winning Hand" draw on Steely Dan. "Climbing" has a rugged beat and a lyrical allusion to The Notorious B.I.G.'s 1993 song "Party and Bullshit". The middle section of the album explores broader emotions and themes of loss and lament. "Slipping Away" is a slow-building meditation on loss, with sentimental music backing the narrator's plea to a departing love. On the slow burning pop rock song "Lost for Now", he comes to terms with being alone and leaves town, but finds salvation in "a smile that changes everything" as the song closes with a shimmer of cymbal. The stark ballad "Butterfly" is built around Bilal's soaring falsetto and Glasper's rippling piano. Its music explores jazz, and also features dreamy Moog accents. The album closes with lyrics about the promise of tomorrow: "Woke up this morning to the sound of a bluebird singing / Suddenly I knew just where to begin / Something so simple / How can it speak so loud to me?"
In anticipation of the album's release, Bilal released a free mixtape called The Retrospection through his Facebook page on December 6, 2012. "Back to Love" was released as the lead single from A Love Surreal on December 11, and on January 8, 2013, a music video for the song was released online. Bilal performed the album's music for the first time at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia on February 13. A Love Surreal was released on February 26 by eOne.
A Love Surreal received widespread acclaim from critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream publications, the album received an average score of 82, based on 11 reviews. AllMusic's Andy Kellman said Bilal had improved as a producer and songwriter while remaining "supernaturally skilled and creative" as a vocalist, "swooping, diving, wailing, and sighing, all with complete command." Paste magazine's Evan Rytlewski said "for the first time in his career, Bilal no longer sounds like an artist with entirely too much to prove; he's just a great singer, backed by great players he puts to good use on a set of sticky, deceptively inventive songs". Writing for NPR, Ann Powers said that A Love Surreal "cultivates the stratospheric vibe" of Coltrane's A Love Supreme while Bilal's ambition is "grounded in fierce intelligence and a commitment to letting stories unfold all the way to their sometimes sorrowful, sometimes orgasmic end." Ken Capobianco of The Boston Globe called it "bracingly good", "compelling music" that allows Bilal's "falsetto to bring the intimate lyrics to life." In The New York Times, Jon Pareles said his "full-fledged" voice "needs no studio aid" on songs that "tease and insinuate" with "meanderings [that] lead somewhere." Pitchfork journalist Jayson Greene was less impressed. He said it was a "joy" to listen to Bilal "warp his voice into improbable shapes", but believed the music lacked any prominent melodies. Mikael Wood of the Los Angeles Times was more critical of the closing series of slow jams and "atmospheric clutter", while writing that the album's best songs "warrant the increased attention" in Bilal.
• (co.) Co-producer
Credits adapted from liner notes.