Solange Knowles, The Lesser Sister
Tuesday, September 2, 2008; Page C01
"I'm not her and never will be," the 22-year-old sings matter-of-factly over the lush, dreamy soundscape of album opener "God Given Name."
It's a smart preemptive move: Lacking Beyoncé's irrepressible personality and, especially, her superhuman voice, Solange simply can't keep up with her superstar sibling.
Not that's she's trying to. After a forgettable soul-pop debut, "Solo Star," flopped upon its release in 2003, Solange has chased a completely different trend, refashioning herself as a retro-soul singer who now sounds as if she wishes she'd been born into the Motown family instead of Beyoncé's. Specifically, Diana Ross seems to be a primary muse -- which is somewhat amusing, given that Beyoncé played a character seemingly based on the Detroit diva in "Dreamgirls."
The role is reprised in the pop-art video for "Sol-Angel's" lead single, "I Decided," in which Solange pays tribute to Ross, both as a member of the Supremes (heavy mascara, cocktail dress, choreographed dance moves on an "American Bandstand"-style set) and as a solo singer (exploding hair, spangly jumpsuit, platform shoes).
Produced by the Neptunes, the spry song itself rides a hand-clap sample from the Supremes classic "Where Did Our Love Go," with a piano line that echoes "Heat Wave" by Martha and the Vandellas -- and it includes at least one more Motown reference, what with Solange singing, in an upper-register voice, that there "ain't no mountain that you can't move."
Similar flashbacks can be found throughout "Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams," an album about love and self-identity and Marvin Gaye. Its songs feature various iterations of the Motown sound in their melodies, rhythms and instrumentation -- from "Would've Been the One" (about a wandering man) and "T.O.N.Y." (about a one-night stand) to "Ode to Marvin" (on which Gaye himself is sampled).
Of course, that '60s, early '70s soul sound is given a glossy 2008 update, as Solange's army of collaborators (including the former Motown hitmaker Lamont Dozier, who co-wrote a song) punched up the material with modern production flourishes that hint at hip-hop. On the second half of the compellingly bizarre "Cosmic Journey," a duet with neo-soul singer Bilal, the production even takes a hard left turn into electronic trance, as if Solange has suddenly transformed herself into the new Donna Summer, at least stylistically.
Vocally, there's no comparison, as Summer -- like Beyoncé -- is out of Solange's league. So, for that matter, is Amy Winehouse, whose blockbuster album, "Back to Black," kicked off the slightly modernized retro-soul trend two years ago.
Solange has somewhat limited range, an often nasal tone and no real sense of vocal nuance. On "Sol-Angel," that combination adds up to perfectly passable but faceless vocals, making the album more of an achievement in songcraft and production than anything.
Indeed, Solange's collaborators (including Jack Splash, Soulshock & Karlin, and Mark Ronson, the chief architect of Winehouse's sound) have created a perfectly likable album that's brimming with bright, textured music. It's just too bad they couldn't get somebody more interesting to sing the songs, like, say, Solange's soul sister No. 1.
DOWNLOAD THIS: "I Decided (Part 1)"