Yesterday, Solange Knowles (the singer in the family who isn't Beyoncé) released her excellent EP, True. Coming in at under 30 minutes and sporting just seven songs, it is as restrained as its star's vocals, which are crisp and limber but generally free of melisma. Solange will never not be compared to her sister first of all because duh, and secondly because her tone often sounds like a higher, airier version of Bey's. At this point, though, Solange is yin to Beyoncé's yang. While Beyoncé is so mainstream that her surface perfection will never crack, Solange is the hard-flopping, "fuck"-saying, Dirty Projectors-covering former teen mom who'll steal a coat after modeling it on a runway and then tell a magazine about it.
Solange paid for True herself after wiggling her way out of her former deal with Interscope. That affiliation gave birth to two albums, including 2008's well-regarded, Motown-influenced, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams. That album sounded safe while perpetually pleasant True rarely does. Most of its songs begin wildly (the looped yelp of the first single, "Losing You") or with an icy electricity ("Lovers in the Parking Lot" slinks in with a guttural moan of a bass line and deliberately sputtering percussion that could belong to the Knife), turn emotional when mood-setting keyboards come in and then turn even harder when Solange starts to sing, inevitably mulling the concoction with her pipes.
The effect is a collection of fast slow songs or slow fast songs that aren't so much bittersweet as sweet and savory. Solange simultaneously surprises and guides as the unquestionable focal point of tracks that could stand on their own right. She is bigger than her music and of her music, a diva and human at once. Her songs sound sunny and forlorn at the same time, especially the briskly shuffling highlight "Some Things Never Seem To Fucking Work." In hitting multiple sensibilities at once, Solange and her music sound really real – after all, it often happens that something had to be happy in the first place to eventually make you so sad.
For this release, Solange worked solely with British producer Dev Hynes (also known as Blood Orange). In such a collaboration-happy musical climate, that may be the oddest thing about the EP. The throwback here is to album-long pairings like those of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones or of Janet Jackson and Jam & Lewis. As Solange recently told the Grio:
I have learned that I'm generally attracted to albums and records, from as early as I can remember, that are produced by one producer; that are written by the artist; that is a true collaboration, which sort of transcends a moment in time; that is a real vibe, a real energy.
True accomplishes that. Solange will never exist out of Beyoncé's shadow (the day before the release of True came Beyoncé's announcement of the HBO Beyoncé documentary that Beyoncé is directing and producing), but that sort of thing builds character. At a time when people like Ke$ha who are content to work within the mainstream - wanting nothing but to stay there while still claiming to be rebels - Solange is heading her own quiet but actual rebellion. Some things never seem to fucking work, but True does.