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« In Which We Dance Like A Fool »

Deliberately Complicated


Solange is so likeable. Big sister B is cool in an obvious, occasionally ironic way (like, the fact that you taught the “Single Ladies” dance to your 5 year old niece is a cause of joy and shame) but Solange is the kind of cool you want in your cool girl posse. She ups the amp on cool. You look at the neon clown eyes and lips, at the orange power suit on that skinny frame and you’re struck by how oddness, by how personality as an ever-evolving set of shades and symbols can be can be so intriguing. Like Beyonce, she’s got great entertainer DNA — those cheekbones, the hair, the voice, the legs — but, for the younger Knowles, weirdness is a deliberate complication. Her style, both in her looks and in her tunes, isn’t weird enough to alienate or disturb but just weird enough to keep you guessing: how do I define this? and, if I can’t define it, is that okay?

Which has a lot to do with the appeal of her new EP on Terrible Records True, a small offering of 7 artfully moody songs. The record blossoms with a specific brand of quirk and taste — intelligent enough to engage you, pop and familiar and retro enough to make you lose yourself and groove — with each song a profile of a different mood, each dipped in a different candy-colored hue. “Losing You,” the first single, for example, is so hard to get out of your head. Swimming over Afro beats and a single cracking yelp that loops madly in the background, Solange’s voice is a wash of pool-blue that suns itself and stretches. The dreamy warmth of the synths and vocals rub up against the playful, infectious schoolyard beats, and the result is sly and feel-good delightful. It sends tendrils of sex and sunshine curling through your body.

True offers no power songs, no anthems, no declarations. R&B may be known for its tradition of pairing sweet blue melancholy with anthemic posturing, but Solange and her co-writer/producer Devonté Hynes bring to their work a dreamier, weedier sensibility. They abandon traditional song structures in favor of elastic, layered arrangements that grow, like strange tropical gardens, with a logic of their own. They can be brief and sweet — like “Look Good With Trouble,” a breathy, cooing vocal concoction laid over a trembling synth beat which finishes in just a minute & a half. Or they can be as intricate and winding as a rainlit drive down the Pacific Coast Highway — like “Bad Girls (Verdine Version),” a near six minute mood indigo affair in which sultry synthy hooks and wordless crooning are anchored by a smacking bass line (played by Verdine of Earth, Wind & Fire) that sends lizards marching up and down your spine. 

Most of all, there’s Solange’s voice. It’s flexible and warm and she uses it like an instrument, to fill the open spaces, and to open up more space. Hynes’ production makes use of arrangements and vocal harmonies that showcase the versatility and expressiveness of her singing. It’s not a ferocious voice but one that, whether it’s crooning low or reaching for wordless heights, slips straight under your skin. A storyteller’s voice: one that knows that it’s not the whole show, but a part that plays with other parts, moving sometimes in tandem, sometimes slipping past, sometimes ricocheting in ardent challenge. True is all about these tonal landscapes, dripping with beats and honey, a gauzy stretching wasteland of candy-colors and electric lights glimpsed through a muting haze of dust and rain.

Over the past year or two, critics have been considering the shape of the new R&B. Not only do acts like Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, J*Davey and Solange herself bring a vagrant darkness to R&B’s bedroom sensibilities, but they bring a confession booth in as well. The “I” has always been central to R&B as the claiming of a space to declare oneself but who that “I” is becomes a lot more fluid and shifting when a performer like Solange takes the stage. The songs don’t sound like declarations, but like explorations of works {of selves} in constant evolution. Who is the real Solange? What is the real R&B? What does real love mean? Or loss? Or real style? Or sexiness? True has a distinct mood, a distinct point of view, but it never quite crystallizes into something solid. As soon as you think you know what it is — pure ‘80s new wave stylings, for example, or Afro-pop, or Motown retro cool — she shifts into a subtly different mood. She has so many different looks and tricks, and the freedom to encompass it all is part of what she wants to tell us. Every moment is it own experience: you go with the groove, you let it wash over you, and then you let the next one take you. Baby, it’s all good.

The video for "Losing You" is worth talking about for the way it illustrates something essential about this kind of self-making. “Losing You” — which was filmed in a humble township in South Africa and features a crew of Congolese dandies from Le Sape Society (as in, Society for the Advancement of People of Elegance) — is a strange video, full of self-conscious poses, self-conscious dancing, self-conscious outfits. Solange is framed dancing her signature marionette moves in doorways, in front of display shelves full of used pastel-color radios, in the back seats of commuter vans. For the most part, she doesn’t interact with those around her, except when someone else needs the space that her body occupies and then she moves aside. The choreography is out of sync with the song, the main actors are out of sync with the landscape, her print blouse is out of sync with her satiny diaper shorts, which are out of sync with her leopard loafers...

And that’s exactly the point. What we have is a bricolage of different elements which don’t appear to relate to each other — what are these impeccably elegant men in their Union Jack attire doing strutting their stuff on these corrugated tin hemmed streets? — but their unrelatedness is not a statement of the surreal. Rather, it’s a statement of the everyday. Dissonance is what populates the frame, what drives the rhythmic and sartorial logic of Solange’s body. Dissonance creates playfulness, creates freedom, creates a space for us to imagine and perform and become — and keep becoming — ourselves.

Does it matter who we are when the “we” — or the “I” — is ever a thing in flux? At Solange’s Bowery Ballroom show on December 11, there was joy and intimacy in the room. So much affection. So many afros. So many well-dressed handsome plaid-clad black men. You could tell that those of us in the audience felt a special kind of kinship with her. She wore a suit that looked like someone’s old curtains and danced like a fool, and she looked so great and sang her heart out and all we could do was whoop and sing and dance along with her. 

At the end of the set, she turned her eyes up at the rafters, jelly-kneed, exhausted, smiling that beautiful dizzy grin and the camera phones started flashing and someone told me that Beyonce was on the balcony… Of course she was. Of Solange’s many selves, one is weird kid sister Knowles, and no one will ever let her forget it — but it doesn’t matter because she owns it.

Shahirah Majumdar is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Vertigo.

"Bad Girls (Verdine Version)" - Solange (mp3)

"Don't Let Me Down" - Solange (mp3)

"Some Things Never Seem To Fucking Work" - Solange (mp3)

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