However, Bilal's label dropped him in 2003 and shelved "Love for Sale," the follow-up effort that he had convinced execs to let him self-produce. The project eventually leaked online and earned acclaim, helping him secure live gigs and continue to grow his fanbase. He now describes the turn of events as a Catch-22.
"I was bummed out. I felt like I was under the bootleg plague for a minute," recalls Bilal, who stopped recording for over a year after the "Love for Sale" leak. "But then I started getting a lot of work…I wasn't making money from the album, but I was making money from the shows and people were responding to this new music. Everybody knew it word for word."
The response inspired Bilal to finally hit the studio again in early 2008 and start his next album, which he describes as "a progression of the music that was bootlegged.
"On 'Love for Sale' I was going for a raw, bluesy feeling because I was listening to a lot of Howlin' Wolf records," he says. "This time I've taken that and mixed it with jazz and rock inflections. This record is about me discovering Steely Dan, John Lennon, and Bobby Womack."
Nine of the 12 songs planned for the album are finished, and all are produced by Bilal with some help from Virginia producer Nottz (Kanye West, Snoop Dogg), and Sa-Ra member Shafiq Husayn, who worked on Erykah Badu's "New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War."
Among the standout tracks, Bilal says, are "Who Are You?" -- a seven-minute, Squarepusher-inspired opus on which he sings about horoscopes, religion and Egyptology -- and "Dollar," which he describes as an electronic blues track about the allure of money and drugs.
In addition to the new album, Bilal most recently lent his vocals to Husayn's own genre-bending solo debut on Plug Research, "Shafiq En' A-free-Ka," and jazz albums by Terence Blanchard and Robert Glasper. He also jumped onstage with rapper Common during the rapper's opening set for Maxwell's Sept. 28 show in New York, something that he plans to do again soon. "Initially it was just going be that one day, but the cats convinced me," he says. "I won't be out on the whole tour but I'll be out on some shows."
As for whether he's worried about his new album getting leaked before release, Bilal says he's changed his attitude. "I'm just trying to have that mentality like I don't really own this music," he explains. "It's just something that comes through me, so if things don't go my way, I still see the beauty in it."