The musical landscape is littered with them: artists trading on the talent and fame of their more talented, more famous sibling. Most music fans are smart enough to know that whenever “the brother or sister-or son or daughter- of chart-topping singer XXX” arrives on the scene, they should run for cover. My pals at Popdose recently dedicated an entire article to the phenomenon, bringing back some famously awful examples of a few artists who assumed that sharing a bloodline with someone meant sharing their talent as well.
So you have every right to be frightened by the sophomore effort from Solange Knowles. Yep, Solange is the little sister of world-famous diva singer/actress Beyonce Knowles, sister-in-law of Jay-Z. She’s occasionally stepped in as a fourth member of Destiny’s Child, co-written songs for her sister and her sister’s bandmate Kelly Rowland, and released a fairly horrid album of her own half a decade ago, “Solo Star”. However, she’s probably most known for creating a chink in the fresh-scrubbed Knowles family image by getting knocked up at 17 (Papa Mathew Knowles almost immediately made Solange marry the baby’s father, a move that Mr. & Mrs. Spears would have been wise to emulate). Now a 22 year old divorcee, Solange makes her re-entry onto the musical scene with “Sol-Angel & The Hadley Street Dreams”, a title so pretentious you almost want to hate the album before it starts playing.
However, I’ve gotta say, the album’s not terrible. Actually, it’s pretty decent. “Sol-Angel” wisely veers a bit left of Beyonce’s hip-hop/R&B hybrid and dramatic, big ballads. In line with the carefully cultivated “free spirit” image she’s acquired over the years, this album falls comfortably in the “alternative soul” category. Solange can’t fully escape her sister’s shadow, after all genetics dictate that there will be some kind of vocal similarity, and there are moments when she seems to be trying a little too hard to be the un-Beyonce (gratuitous profanity), but overall, the album is much better than I was expecting, and turns out to be a fairly solid piece of music.
If “Sol-Angel” calls any particular artist or band to mind for me, it’s Gnarls Barkley. Not only does Cee-Lo himself co-pen two songs on the actual record, but the Motown-on-space-munchies vibe that permeates Gnarls’ two albums rears its’ head pretty often here on tracks like “Dancing in the Dark”, “I Decided” (the best thing Pharrell Williams has produced in years) and “6 O’ Clock Blues”, on which producer Mark Ronson (of Amy Winehouse fame) works the same retro magic he’s been working for the past couple of years-with an assist (via sample) from The Dap-Kings, the same band that provided the instrumental backing for most of Winehouse’s “Back to Black”.
This album also has a strong ambient/electronica vibe, which is successful enough that Solange should probably consider making an entire album that sounds like this. From opening track “God Given Name” (the most obviously autobiographical song on the album), to “Cosmic Journey”, a duet with neo-soul space cadet Bilal, this album contains elements not found on your typical R&B album, and I’ve got to give Solange props for going slightly off the beaten path, especially when you consider she has the connections to make a big-budget pop/R&B album (interestingly, collaborations with rappers Q-Tip and the ubiquitous Li’l Wayne were apparently shitcanned, as they didn’t make the final album).
Not to say the album’s perfect. “Sol-Angel” definitely has an affected air about it, as though Solange is going overboard in her quest to be seen as different, she should definitely take a lyric writing class (although her sister needs it much, much more), her “Ode To Marvin” is well-meaning but is just a pale imitation of the “What’s Going On” sound, and too many songs on the album float by without leaving a strong impression. However, I can say with confidence that “Sol-Angel” is a damn sight better than the multi-platinum aural poo that was “B-Day”. If Big B is really about making good music as opposed to just making dollars, then I hope she reacts to the sound of little sister breathing down her neck.