So how exactly did you end up doing a duet with Beyonce?
She put the word in for that gig. I knew of Beyonce from her high school [High School for the Performing and Visual Arts] because she went to the same high school as [jazz pianist] Robert Glasper and Robert went to the same college as me, New School [of Jaz and Contemporary Music]. When we were in college, Robert would do jam sessions in Houston and I would go along. So I’ve known Beyonce from those jam sessions. She’s always been a down-to-earth cat, so I guess she just looked out.
So I’m assuming you hooked up with Solange for her last album through Beyonce?
That whole Houston scene as far as their high school was concerned. Pretty much everybody that came out of that high school was bad ass.
Now Jay-Z’s another big name that sought your talents…
That was another random thing. He just called me. I was just chillin’ at the crib and I get a call like ‘Yo you in New York? Jay wants you to come to the studio today. Can you be here in two hours?” I was like “Uhh aight.” He told me he was doing the American Gangster album and he said “The first person I thought of was you because I want it to be on the ‘70’s thing.” He was thinking Curtis Mayfield. I think everybody, because of how I go about my falsetto, gets taken to Curtis or Prince.
“I get a call like ‘Yo you in New York? [Jay-Z] wants you to come to the studio today. Can you be here in two hours?’ I was like ‘Uhh aight.’”
Yeah, Curtis’ falsetto’s a little smoother and Prince’s is a little more powerful. I think the first time I ever saw you live you did a Prince cover.
Back in the day we used to do “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” Back then was crazy though because my label had me do a lot of crazy shit. [They’d say] “Hey you sound like Prince. Do a Prince song.” I’m like aww man––that would be the reason why I wouldn’t wanna do a Prince song. That’s the whole crazy thing about the industry: they want everybody to do the same thing.
How is the Bilal of today different from the Bilal of 2000?
I feel a little wiser. I feel better. Back then I was unsure about certain things. I feel now I have more of a grip on how I want my music to sound. Having worked with all these different styles of producers from Dre to Ahmir [Questlove] Thompson, I’ve learned a lot. I feel this is the Bilal coming into his own. From the first one, coming out with an album at 21, I got to see…and that’s the good thing about working with like a Jay-Z, I’ve been seasoned from working with all these greats.
Is it true you sing opera in seven languages?