Having grown up as the younger sister of Destiny Child’s lead singer Beyoncé Knowles, Solange would express an interest early on in music serving as a background dancer for Destiny’s Child and showing a penchant for songwriting. She would sign with her father Matthew Knowles’ Music World Entertainment label, and at age 16 released the 2002 album “Solo Star.” The project would be a true family affair, with writing and production credits helmed by her big sister Beyoncé, and her father, who would recruit numerous superstar producers such as Timbaland, Rockwilder, the Neptunes and more for the album.
Listen to five essential tracks by Solange.
Produced by the Neptunes for her debut album “Solo Star,” “Crush” finds Solange discussing the ups and downs of young love. While the release was targeted at the commercial club and radio landscape, it suffered from an identity crisis of sorts as listening audiences responded lukewarmly, many expressing that it was too derivative and synthetic, and that Solange’s voice sounded too much like her older sister’s. The next few years would prove to be a whirlwind for Solange. She would go on to co-write music for Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child members Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams. She would pursue various solo ventures, taking on acting roles in numerous films including “Bring It On: All or Nothing.” She would get married and later divorced, start a family and garner life experiences that would later translate into her music.
When work began on her sophomore effort, a few things were different. While she collaborated on many of the tunes on her debut album, Solange would now take control of every aspect of the songwriting and construction. Her debut had been targeted at commercial radio, but her sophomore release would adopt a throwback soul sound with a world-class assemblage of producer talent that kept the tracks tight, focused and vibrant. Some of the producers brought on board included Marsha Ambrosius, Lamont Dozier, Pharrell Williams, Mark Ronson, Bilal and more.
The album would reflect Solange’s experiences and worldview. Even the album title “Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams” was personal, as it was a play on Solange’s name and “Hadley” being the street she grew up on as a child. Its throwback energy and vibe is clearly evident on the track “T.O.N.Y.”
“Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams” was lauded as a critical darling and modern classic, with its tribute and recreation of the Motown sound of the 1960s on tracks like “I Decided,” “Dancing in the Dark” and “Would’ve Been the One,” its embrace of soul psychedelica on “Sandcastle Disco,” and its
quirky, ambient R&B electro offerings such as “This Bird” and “Cosmic Journey.” This was the album that most pundits felt that Solange found her voice — an ambitious, creative and distinctive statement that brilliantly walked the line between soul revivalism and nu-soul benchmarks, while eschewing the commercial music world. The release still holds up well today as a daring foray into sonic music adventuring.
While it would have been easy to rest on her laurels just off the strength of the album, Solange would double down on her independence, creativity and maverick sensibilities. She would start her own record label named Saint Records and release a well-received seven-song EP “True.” She became obsessed with experimenting with new and different sounds and concepts, creating song structures to her piano playing and later shipping those tracks to a producer to fill, engineer and mix down. Some of her collaborators on the upcoming album included Q-Tip, The Dream, BJ the Chicago Kid, Tweet, Kelly Rowland, Sampha the Great, Kelela and many more.
3. “Cranes in the Sky”
Her next album, “A Seat at the Table,” is a stunning and powerful expression of Black identity, independence, empowerment and ultimately an adventurous statement on Black womanhood, set against many of the pressing issues in the world today. Solange began writing one of its tracks, “Cranes in the Sky,” eight years before the album release, when producer and singer Raphael Saadiq handed her a CD with a few instrumentals on it. One consisted of just drums, strings and bass. That same night Solange returned to her hotel and wrote to it, then eight years later revisited the track and got Saddiq to produce it and a few of the other songs on the album.
“A Seat at the Table” was universally lauded for its ability to address powerful societal issues and social commentary on a canvas of exquisitely gorgeous sonic sound paintings and organics. It would reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts and “Cranes in the Sky” would garner Solange a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance. It reinforced her standing as an artist with something to say with an authentic voice that distills brutal honesty in melodic-rich textures. Her social commentary also further established her as a barrier-breaking artist who has the inclusionary power to make the thoughts, feelings and opinions of the voiceless heard.
4. “Borderline (An Ode to Self-Care)”
No more is her inclusionary power evident than in “Borderline (An Ode to Self-Care),” where she addresses the nuanced topic of self-care. On the surface, the song appears to be about a woman taking a break from her relationship in order to provide time and space to think. But in reality, it extends to self-preservation as Black women often times bear the brunt of numerous societal ills because they are often the caregivers of the Black community amid social injustice, physical health and mental wellness. Here, Solange opines about the need for Black women from a purely statistical and communal perspective to embrace the radical act of self-care. For this track, she teams up with legendary producer and MC Q-Tip from a Tribe Called Quest who co-produced the song and included an interpolation of Quest’s classic track “Electric Relaxation” into the tune.
Solange would shortly thereafter release another album “When I Get Home,” which found her further exploring socially relevant and impactful songwriting, visually artistic concepts and a growing Afrofuturistic perspective that evoked shades of Grace Jones, Tyler the Creator and various other avant-garde influences, and fused into gorgeous motifs that captured the ever-developing global African diaspora.
5. “6 O’ Clock Blues”
Finally, “6 O’ Clock Blues” features the retro soul-drenched sounds of her sophomore effort “Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams.”
In recent years, Solange has branched off into multimedia art with works displayed at the Guggenheim and various other museums around the world. She’s also evolved into a fashion icon, launching an apparel collection Dereon, a sister line to her and Beyoncé’s House of Dereon.
While it’s natural for many to compare Solange with her mega-star sister Beyoncé, it’s disingenuous to do so. They are two completely different entities with different trajectories in music. While Beyoncé is a global force with mass and commercial appeal, Solange has synthesized her talents of music, dance, activism, curation and taste making into a redefined model of what it means to be an artist. She understands that Black art is more than music, but rather an experience that makes you think and feel. With this level of recognition, Solange is more than an artist — she is a vibe all her own, and that’s something you can’t put a label on.