Solange Knowles Floats Above Her Weighty Last Name on ‘True’

Solange Knowles and Dev Hynes photo courtesy of 230 Publicity.

Solange Knowles will probably never be able to release an album without an ensuing maelstrom of context. It’s inevitable for an artist whose sister’s not only one of the most recognizable names in music, but a memetic goddess of pop culture who hangs with the Obamas and isn’t upstaged, whose Tumblr posts are treated as divine proclamations and whose last video saw her literally ascending to the heavens. That was the context of Solange’s first two (excellent) albums, 2003’s Solo Star, which evoked ‘90s R&B to underrated effect, and 2008’s retro-eclectic Sol-Angel and the Hadley Street Dreams, with contributions by Cee-Lo Green and Mark Ronson. Then she made a couple career moves that dragged in a whole other mess of context: ditching her major, covering canonical indie band the Dirty Projectors, working with Twin Shadow and Grizzly Bear, scoring New York Times profiles about the off-kilter fashions she touts and the warehouse Grimes shows she attends, signing to Terrible Records and, in the process, adopting their visual branding, which could be tossed into a time capsule of tasteful design in 2012. The R&B-or-indie questions would be thorny enough on their own even if they didn’t happen as the genre lines got suddenly blurry.

“Solange transcends all the accusations that cynics have leveled — mere also-ran coasting on Beyoncé’s name recognition, mere hook singer trying to rebrand herself with a fortuitously-timed choice of producer — and proves herself an equal partner in something truly collaborative.”

This is the context that swirls around Solange’s True. On first glance, it seems to serve the same purpose as Ghost by Sky Ferreira, who shares a producer, Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, and whose relationship to pop is more or less comparable to Solange’s to R&B: rebooting a career with a test-drive EP. But the similarities stop there. Where Ferreira’s EP finds her trying out several musical modes: alt-pop buzzy electro, even alt-country — True sticks to one: Hynes’ pop-from-a-distance, which borrows equally from R&B and shimmery ‘80s prom themes. The beats are prominent yet frosty, the tracks hooky yet unmoored, more likely to spiral off on tangents than deliver a proper chorus or bridge. It’s netted Hynes accusations of underwriting or narrowness, but it’s deliberate: these songs aren’t meant to deliver hooks, but set a mood and linger there. Solange, whose voice is a diffident, glassier version of her sister’s, easily slips into this — which makes sense enough; bundled with Solo Star were a couple remixes that aren’t far off, like the wobbly outro to the Nu Soul version of “Feelin’ You” or Vibelicious remix of “Crush,” thick with percussion like her brain twitterpating away before she can form words.

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