Photo courtesy of Frank Yang/Chromewaves
Somehow, in the last four years, people have finally started paying fervent attention to Solange Knowles. Her narrative is common: challenging formative years in the shadow of a talented, music industry-ruling sibling; misguided attempt at teen solo stardom; rebellion, unplanned pregnancy and failed marriage; prolonged break followed by sophomore effort; DJ hobbyist turned Vogue style star; dues paid; and, voilÃ , success!
Team Solange enthusiasm was palpable at her sold-out Friday night gig at The Danforth Music Hall, practically vacuum-sealing the air out the place. It’s your collection of usuals. Prints, patterns, and pussy. Gays, awkward boyfriends, posers. Lesbians looking mean in the corner. Yes, yes, yes, there’s that faint smell of green wafting through the assemblage. “Everyone is here tonight!” says everyone, on loop. And you get it, but it makes you cringe anyway. (Remember: everyone is saying the same thing at Swedish House Mafia.) What people mean, I imagine, when they say “everyone” is that tonight is one of those rare nights when you can actually feel yourself thrust through the pulse of the city, not just its excrement. Editors, bloggers, stylists. DJs, photographers, diehards. Sales associates, subway sandwich artists, parents. Coat check is full before it even had a chance. Janet’s “Escapade” plays while you fidget. My flask has white wine in it and I don’t care if it’s not Jameson. Tonight, I want to be perfectly sedated, not blackout drunk, because Solange is an exercise in subtle substance over brash showmanship, and I want every ounce of satisfaction.
How Solange got her groove back
And why they’re all here is as transparent as why people set up Twitter accounts or endure the Golden Globes. Last October, when Knowles dropped her “comeback” single and first original material in four years, the infectious groover “Losing You,” she returned from a professional-ish hiatus a virtually new artist, with a rich back catalogue that most have never openly claimed to know – or even like very much – until now. And, somewhere, she was pulled up and held in high esteem.
The story spins were different this time around: she’d arrived, she’s in style, she hangs with Grizzly Bear, she lives in Brooklyn, she’s coooool. But ever since Solange debuted on BET in 2003 with her disc Solo Star, it’s not hard to deduce that she’s been in perpetual agony about, well, everything. It always seemed to revert back to a struggle, or rebellion, for/against a name that she didn’t make famous. “We’ll try not to do that to you anymore,” they all collectively wrote between the lines. And so, Solange followed up her splashy, sunny return to a new music business with a new EP. True, a blend of modern anti-pop pop with ’80s backbeats, effectively eschews a major label and its connotations for an all-encompassing independent image. And we’re only so happy to feel as sincere in her presence.
The modest, eleven-song set lasted exactly an hour from start to finish, encore included, rolling through all the tracks off her recent effort. Opening with the newer “Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work,” Solange shows she’s succinct and tight. It’s clear the show is meant as an extension of True‘s purpose: to give fans and audiences a taste of a sound she’s only begun to cultivate and explore. Knowles appears flanked by a small band, in a patterned dress that reveals nothing expect the legs that make her sashay from corner to corner in bouts of Diana Ross in Mahogany realness. And her hair bounces along with every beat, every turn, every note. And, of course, that one white guy on drums is like the only white guy with a ‘fro in here that happens to be right in front of me.
As a performer, Solange is impressive, probably because she’s so surprising. (She covers fellow Texan Selena’s “I Could Fall In Love,” for example.) We’re not used to seeing her mount flashy Billboard performances or even perform readily on the talk-show circuit, so one could easily anticipate her next major performance to go the way of Lana on SNL. Yet, Solange has control of her range, and knows how to play well within it. It’s because of this, or because of her sound guy, that the vocals are comparable to the records, even better in some instances, especially on the modern love ballad that is “Bad Girls.” Her ad-libs, translated almost exactly as they are in studio, aren’t so much tools for proving any sort of ability as they are intricacies of the melody, same with her developing signature coo. Don’t misunderstand: Solange has pipes, but she doesn’t overuse them. It often takes several listens, but eventually you’ll stop questioning whether Solange has any definitive vocal talents, even quicker when comparisons are put to rest. And equal star of the show is producer partner Dev Hynes, who also co-wrote all of the new songs. Together, they dance and wiggle like the Timbaland and Missy of a new sound, for a new generation.
Solange: Stripped down
“Some people forget I’ve been doing this for 11 years,” she says, as she slips into a re-vamp of “Crush,” from her first LP. In the years between this and 2008’s Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, she took her time to develop as a young artist fresh off divorce and motherhood, and it showed. What Solange presented on that record — her first real one of note, I contest — is a thoughtful collection of ’60s-fueled nu-R&B tracks that were equal parts turmoil, equal parts new breath of life. She polished off two numbers from this album, “T.O.N.Y.” and “Cosmic Journey,” to illustrate both sides of her spectrum, and you can hear fragments of her current sound on the latter track, which could hold its own perfectly alongside any True vibe. Given the right context and backbeat, it’s all relative.
“It’s so crazy how she’s so different from her sister.” “She’s the black Robyn.” “She’s like Esperanza Spalding.” Those are pretty much the reactions you will hear at a Solange show, and that’s perhaps the crux of the matter: that Solange has always been fighting against someone else’s ideas of her, that she must be positioned in relation to others (the “indie so and so”) to be evaluated and considered, to aid in our decisions of how to accept her for real or for fake. Yet the beauty of Sol-Angle is simple: she’s always felt like someone who made it so easy to connect with, not worship. I’m never been much of a fan of her sister, or similar artists, for this very reason. She’s never had the chance to feel like herself, until now. It’s mirrored in her interactions with her growing legion of admirers, who she wants to see periodically throughout her show (“house lights please!”), and still acts surprised to see night after night. Last night, Solange performed at the Vanity Fair Oscar viewing party. And you realize her greatest skill yet is being a chameleon, letting you see and hear the parts of her only that she wants you to.