Twenty-two-year-old Bilal's promising debut bolsters the argument that Philadelphia may once again be the center of soul. With the help of fellow Philly soulquarians ?uestlove from the Roots and producer/musician James Poyser (Common, D'Angelo), Bilal suggests the energy and inspiration of the city's most exciting musical era -- when producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff created the Philadelphia International sound with artists Billy Paul and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, among others. Like Philly natives Musiq Soulchild and Jill Scott, Bilal displays a deep appreciation for, and knowledge of, the history of soul music. At his best, Bilal conjures up the streetwise journalism of Curtis Mayfield: Smart tracks such as the Dr. Dre-produced "Fast Lane" sound custom-made for bumping in the clubs. And like D'Angelo -- to whom he will inevitably be compared -- Bilal reveals a clear Princely influence in many of his best songs. "For You" -- which is also the title of Prince's 1978 debut -- sounds simultaneously like a letter to a lover and an homage to the Artist. The gem of the disc is "Soul Sista," which showcases Bilal's soulful falsetto and impressive vocal range to the accompaniment of a slow, gospel-tinged keyboard chord progression.
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Sometimes Bilal's influences seem a bit too obvious, as in the P-Funk touches that show up in "Sally" or in the wah-wah guitars that saturate the Sly and the Family Stone tribute "Slyde." At seventeen tracks, the disc could use some trimming, as well. These are mere quibbles, though: These cuts sound better than most of the R&B on urban radio. As Bilal continues to refine his musical identity, you can count on adding his name to the long list of those who have helped establish Philly's fine legacy of soul.