When we first met Solange Knowles, she was 14 years old and a temporary member of her sister Beyonce’s group, Destiny’s Child. She was substituting for an injured Kelly Rowland who, history will record, had broken several toes during a backstage wardrobe change.
Within a few years, Solange had released a pro-forma pop & B debut titled, a trifle optimistically, “Solo Star,” gotten married and divorced, had a son, moved to and left Idaho, and released a second disc, the retro-minded “Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams.”
Few outside of her immediate circle might have foreseen much of a future for Solange besides a few respectably selling singles and the occasional high-profile DJ gig, until the day in the summer of 2009 when the younger Knowles took her sister and brother-in-law to see a hometown show by Brooklyn indie royalty Grizzly Bear, a now-legendary, Twitter-melting journey. (“I’m always at those type of events,” Jay-Z, who is probably never at those type of events, told MTV at the time.) For those who still hadn’t gotten the message that Solange was the cooler Knowles — an Influencer — she followed up a few months later with a much-blogged-about cover of the Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness Is the Move” that felt like a mission statement.
“True,” Knowles’s first real release since, is a seven-song mini-album that was released digitally in late November and in physical form Tuesday. It takes a variety of disparate influences — ’80s pop, early house, ’70s R&B and funk, early ’10s hipster-pop — spoons them over some dreamy, modestly danceable beats, and burnishes everything with an Instagram halo.
Solange, 26, has not fallen heir to her sister’s head-on approach to songmaking, in which every track isn’t merely performed, it’s waged like a military campaign. These are gentle, earworm-y songs one watery beat away from being ballads. They’re slender and lovely to behold, recalling Janet Jackson in both substance (they rely heavily on a more subdued version of vintage Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis “Control”-era beats, especially the fluttery “Locked in Closets”) and marketable back story. (Overshadowed baby sister triumphs!) “True” is a flamingo of an album, flimsy but fine, and as any student of Little Sisters in Pop Music 101 knows, it’s better to be a lesser Janet than a full Ashlee.
Produced and co-written by Dev Hynes, a British indie-musician-turned-producer-of-the-moment, “True” neither sneaks up on you nor hits you over the head. It’s an incubator, an intermission between acts. It will either set the stage for the great Solange album to come or, 10 years from now, serve as a reminder of what could have been.
“True” is arty, pretty and vaguely sad, in that order, and fits nicely into the current zeitgeist, which favors emotive, electro-R&B in various states of undress. It’s less deconstructed than the Weeknd, more instantly, iconically stylish than works by nominally similar artists such as Sky Ferreira (whose recent hit, “Everything Is Embarrassing,” was partly crafted by Hynes) and, it hardly need be said, impeccably pedigreed.
The album was released by Terrible Records, an indie label co-founded by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor. Solange has had some trouble with major labels. Her infamous pre-“True” track, “F--- the Industry (Signed Sincerely),” was a raised middle finger to both the label that recently dropped her and the Beyonce-comparison cottage industry: “Everything I’m not makes me everything I am,” Solange pronounced, after opening the track with the boast/admission that she would never be as perfect as her sister. “If you don’t like it/It’s probably ’cause you don’t get it.”
The song wasn’t her finest moment — it was reductive, crabby and kind of terrible, with a loftiness she hadn’t earned — but it was briskly efficient, and sharp. There’s nothing as direct or defiant on “True.” The beats are subtle, the emotions often amorphous. (The exception is “Losing You,” which basically welds “Cherish”-era Madonna to the chassis of Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life,” bird noises and all. It’s tremendous.)
“True” is a breakup album, more or less, and some of its tracks are genuinely affecting, like the wistful “Lovers in the Parking Lot.” Others feel like set pieces. For all the online sniping that Solange is a vanilla pop star visiting Pitchforkland on a forged hipster passport, the opposite seems true: “True” is shot through with such ennui that even on its saddest songs, Solange never seems more than mildly bummed, as if Opening Ceremony ran out of jeggings in her size.
“Remember when you kissed me at Jimmy John’s when I was 17?” she asks awkwardly on “Some Things Never Seem to F------ Work,” because it sounds like the sort of thing a normal person might say. It’s impossible to imagine Solange alighting at a chain sandwich shop, Diana Ross fright wig and all, and deep down she sounds like she knows it.
Allison Stewart is a freelance writer.