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.
There’s crushing on True, too, and even consummation, but it’s complicated. Single “Losing You” starts out with a chirp of a vocal sample and clashing beats, as if someone left Hadley Street Dreams playing in the background, but soon dissolves into Hynes’ frost; Solange laments a relationship that’s going nowhere, and the track stalls to match. Follow-up “Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work” — tied with Ferreira’s Hynes track “Everything Is Embarrassing” for pithiest title — is even chillier, Solange reminiscing about an on-and-off-indefinitely crush, going through every emotion but an epiphany. Hynes plays the role of the crush, with an equally conflicted spoken-word bridge; together, they meander through attraction and repulsion and beats that could go on forever.
This sentiment’s not new to R&B by any means, and True is full of subtle allusions to the genre. Sometimes they’re modern; “Looks Good With Trouble,” for instance, is a nocturnal drowse like Melanie Fiona’s 4 AM. Sometimes they go back a bit. Solange is the heartbreaker on the regretful “Lovers in the Parking Lot,” full of wistful piano flutters and soprano sighs reminiscent of mid-period Mya, and “Locked in Closets” has breakdowns that go back a decade before that. “Don’t Let Me Down,” meanwhile, is a plea to a potentially caddish lover disguised as a strut, making it the closest thing here to Beyoncé — though it’s equally like a comedown from Hadley Street Dreams’ “Sandcastle Disco” (“Baby, I know you do that to all the girls. You know that I’m fragile….”)
Then there’s “Bad Girls,” the final track and the standout. There’s no tooting or beeping there, nor the YOLO posturing of M.I.A.’s track this year of the same name, but rather a certain transient feeling, not quite pleasant, not quite sad, where the past few mornings after have blurred into their nights before. It swirls and twinkles like a slow dance, and the synths sweep over the verses like meaningful glances, but you’d need to be rather torn about your partner to sway to lines like “and still I try to throw you into my own hurricane… it’s stupid thinking that you would want to come play my game.” There’s a reason for this. The track was originally a Blood Orange B-side sung by Hynes, and aside from a remastering spit-shine and a bass spot by Earth, Wind & Fire’s Verdine White (hence “Verdine Version”), it’s mostly unchanged. From Hynes’ male perspective, the lyric is bemused at best and predatory at worst, one pill away from a Weeknd song. When Solange takes over, she echoes his observations verbatim (“the bed I wake up in, that’s not my own”) but adds something else: something world-weary, aware of his game even through her haze. Taken together, they’re fascinating, like two halves of a duet. “Tell me what’s wrong,” Hynes insists; “I can’t tell you what’s wrong,” Solange answers, then lets the track drift off into a wordless coda and no closure. It’s illustrative of True as a project; 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. Who knows whether it’ll last — Solange could reel in a couple more producers, or Hynes could reel off a couple more clients — but then, that’s a musical relationship well-suited to True: a moment in time that sounds near-perfect.