It’s awfully tempting to make rash, inflammatory statements about Solange Knowles; to contend, for example, that while big sister Beyoncé has the dazzling singles, the scorched-earth howl, and the megawatt tabloid royalty, she’s never concocted a full hour of music as singularly and bizarrely mesmerizing as Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams. But despite their shared qualities—an affinity for high-priced, retro-futuristic r&b, plus a distinctive, insouciant snap to both their voices, whether in soft spoken-word asides or full-on nuclear shrieks—this is like comparing apples to fruitcakes. (Solange is, delightfully, the latter.) And besides, it rudely violates the edict her Hadley St. lays down at the onset, in the first few breathlessly cooed lines of the woozy sci-fi lullaby “God Given Name”:
I’m not becoming expectations
I’m not her and never will be
Two girls torn in different directions
Striving towards the same galaxy
Let my starlight shine on its own
No, I’m no sister—I’m just my god-given name
That part about the same galaxy is debatable. (“I sound high, don’t I?” she adds, accurately. “I promise I’m not high!”) Hadley St. deftly avoids pigeonholing as either a nepotistic afterthought or a throwback-soul time capsule on the order of, say, Raphael Saadiq’s pristine but museum-stuffy Motown love letter The Way I See It; throughout, Solange gleefully indulges the same sort of daffy exuberance that propels fellow space cadets like Janelle Monáe and Erykah Badu. She’s somehow brash and precocious simultaneously—”I play tough as nails with my heart on my sleeve,” she announces on the fantastic, bubblegum-scented, shaker-crazed “Sandcastle Disco,” and then, perhaps unsatisfied with just reeling off clichés, whips up something a bit more vivid for the chorus: “I’m nothin’ but a sandcastle . . . You know that I’m fragile/Bay, buh-buh-buh ba-by, don’t blow me away.” Mariah Carey would’ve killed for this.
Solange, too, is preoccupied by visions of love, but hers tend to be cheerfully cynical and a touch surreal. “T.O.N.Y.” flaunts jazzy guitar and an anthemic nightclub-revue chorus wherein our heroine laments various unsatisfying flings—the title is a corny anagram on paper that works wonders on record. For the syrupy, slithering “Valentine’s Day,” she loudly complains that an on-again/off-again relationship keeps switching off again right before major holidays, thus denying her lavish gifts. The blithely grumpy “I Told You So” announces to her bewildered paramour that their currently perfectly healthy relationship will crap out eventually because, well, that’s just the way it is. Only “6 O’Clock Blues” is a pure, unfettered, gorgeously joyous love song—produced by throwback-soul maestro Mark Ronson and sampling the nimbly bass-driven struts of throwback-soul house band Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, it’s an immaculate antique that nonetheless feels vividly alive.
Sol-Angel‘s sonic aim is never in doubt—it plays like a decades-late but nonetheless awfully compelling audition tape for the Supremes. But only once does the simply retro overwhelm the stridently futuristic: “Ode to Marvin” swipes Gaye’s morose percussion and mournful “Inner City Blues” phrasing exactly, but merely mentioning liquor stores and hustling and whatnot does not guarantee pathos. Thereafter, as if to apologize, Hadley St. gets really weird. “Cosmic Journey,” featuring vaguely lewd crooning from Bilal, is a spaced-out, deeply reverberating dream-pop sleeping pill that ends with a pummeling trance beat slowly, ominously descending as Solange repeatedly moans “I wanna go high! I wanna go high! I wanna go high!” It basically sounds like she’s being abducted by aliens. “This Bird” follows, slow and delicate and torch-y, her huge closing power ballad and statement of purpose: “I’m not in denial! I’m not suicidal! Not an alcoholic!” she bellows, angrily rebutting accusations I don’t recall anyone making, before wrapping things up in her sweetest, frailest coo: “So just shut the fuck up.”
Thus does Solange Knowles start her album claiming she’s not high and begging you not to compare her to Beyoncé, and end it sounding obliteratingly high and inviting inexplicable but highly favorable comparisons to Kate Bush. (Ethereal but powerful, unhinged but in total command.) And thus does Hadley St. indulge in all manner of vintage tomfoolery but still sound beamed in from some fantastical, extraterrestrial future. Conveniently, one song appears twice just to illustrate both sides of the equation. “I Decided” first appears in its normal, human form, produced by the Neptunes and buffed to a Motown-museum shine, jaunty piano and handclaps trailing Solange like a parade as she summons all her vocal pyrotechnics to give heft and dimension to a catchy pop song that nonetheless feels oddly static, barely changing shape or direction because that would disrupt the retro illusion. Ah, but we wrap the album up with “I Decided—Pt. 2,” a Freemasons remix that mostly preserves Solange’s vocals but surrounds them now with ludicrously dramatic synth-pop majesty, a Pet Shop Boys banger par excellence, carving up the original’s unimaginative slab of granite into a triumphant chorus, a histrionic bridge, a breathtaking a cappella free fall. Cue the strings, cue the schmaltz, cue the exhilaration. You may recognize parts of her spaceship, but the galaxy it explores is all her own.