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, the elder Knowles has never concocted a full hour of music as singularly and bizarrely mesmerizing as her younger sister's Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, which was released to critical, if not commercial, acclaim in August.
But despite the sisters' 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.
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 such as 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.
And 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, Solange Knowles starts her album claiming she's not high and begging you not to compare her to Beyoncé, and ends 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 while still sounding 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. Later, "I Decided—Pt. 2" appears as 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 Solange's own.