Review: Solange, "Sol-Angel & The Hadley St. Dreams"
Back in June, I wrote a piece on Solange Knowles and her summer-pie-delicious single "I Decided." In that distant period of time, there was still question over whether her then-forthcoming album would live up to the infectious first single--not to mention a competitive modern music market flooded with R&B songstresses like Amy Winehouse, Keyshia Cole, and Solange's own sister Beyonce, to name a few. Well, she did it.
(The album's not flawless, however, so let's just say it's an OM-.)
Sol-Angel & The Hadley St. Dreams is a uniquely crafted work of pop-soul that, with its bright vocals and tight production, more than warrants a few minutes outside Beyonce's bootylicious shadow. Solange has a husky Motown growl beneath her feminine vocals, duly fitting her odd physical appearance--almost pretty, but hard-edged and over the top (This shouldn't be a surprise, really; Tina Knowles is her stylist. Cough, tranny, cough). The album follows suit. While most of the tracks are instantly likable, many of them venture into a personal world far too convoluted to be understood by a casual listener, and the weight of these few tracks bring down the album as a whole.
Solange recently had a baby (YouTube the Destiny's Child video for "Soldier" to see a preggy cameo) and was subsequently divorced from her husband of, like, a year or something. Doesn't matter. Whatever she went through, it isn't mentioned on Sol-Angel. Nor is her child. Normally one would expect these life-altering events--falling in love, getting knocked up (er, married), having a child and getting a divorce--would somehow show up in her album. I mean, Amy Winehouse can't stop talking about her one love Blake, not to mention her drug addiction and depression. Airing dirty laundry is just part of the package. Granted, sometimes an artist goes to far (suicide references in Keyshia Cole's "Guess What" from The Way It Is), but if my analytical powers are still strong, the only issues Solange is dealing with involve a bit of a Beyonce complex (see image) and an obligatory "for my people" (a.k.a. anti-prejudice) anthem smack dab in the middle of the album. So, when I talk about her weighty tracks, they are really just fatty--and should have been trimmed in post-production. (Or is post-op more appropriate??)
Of these chubby tracks, "Valentine's Day" and "This Bird" are morbidly obese. "Bird" is one of two or three songs on the album with (very) obvious references to Beyonce, which are quite tired by the end of the six-minute track. Ironically, the slower tracks, which Solange simply can't carry with her raspy voice, remind me most of her older sister's first album. Dangerously In Love was more than a little overweight, what with "Signs" and "Gift from Virgo" and "Daddy" and "Speechless" and "The Closer I Get To You" and...you get the point.
The beginning of Sol-Angel is nearly perfect, however, so who cares about fatty thighs when the upper body is bangin'? Kicking things off slowly, "God Given Name" (produced by the Thievery Corporation!) is a strange choice for an album opener, but in the context of the entire set it makes sense; Solange wants the world to know she is different, and while I can't say I fully believe her, the effort is admirable, and "Name" is most certainly listenable. Solange has a great sense of humor, and despite the cryptic lyrics of the later tracks, we get a peek at who Solange really is when she laughs and assures the production team, "I know I sound high, but I promise you guys, I'm not high. I'm not high!"
"T.O.N.Y." has a 808 line that begins on an off note, which works beautifully when Solange's vocals kick in, leading her into the jumpy chorus and allowing her to bow out just in time. The production is understated and calm against the thumping bass line, a juxtaposition of musical influences (Jay-Z hip hop and old school soul) that would not work with another artist. Solange croons about her lost love, Tony, who isn't "just a regular guy," but is really "just the other night." Yeah, thanks Sol-Angel. I'm still trying to figure this one out: does T.O.N.Y. stand for The Other Night? Plus Y? Doesn't matter. "Dancing In the Dark" follows right behind the slightly-stronger "T.O.N.Y.," and while the track showcases the best instrumental work of the entire album--reminiscent of Winehouse's first album--it's the only upbeat track lacking a decent hook, and once again features Solange's confounding lyrics: "These leaves, I want them to fall/these leaves, I can't shake them off/I should be dancing in the dark..."
The strongest song on the album, the ridiculously beautiful, relentlessly bubbly "Would've Been the One," actually surpasses both of Solange's current singles ("Decided" and "Sandcastle Disco") in both production quality and vocal presentation. Solange has a fantastic upper range, and her songwriting abilities, limited vocal flourish, and the production by Riddick and Splash merge like perfectly chiseled gears in a jukebox. The production on "One" is modern while maintaining a retro sensibility, in vein of Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man." Mid-chorus the beat doubles, ending in an ecstatic little blast of piano chords and tambourine shakes. It's an indelible, once-on-an-album kind of track, a song designed to lift spirits and inspire--you know, in the music-as-caffeine kind of way. Hey, coffee inspires me.
Of course there's the second single, "Sandcastle Disco," where Solange tells a new boy she's a "cool low jane with a skip on her shoe"; with it's smoky cymbals and Solange's coy use of metaphor ("I'm nothing but a sandcastle/don't blow me away"), "Disco" is another shining moment on Sol-Angel.
The album's strangest moment comes in the form of "Cosmic Journey." Unlike many professional critics, who see the track as superfluous and a bit too trippy for mainstream pop, I find "Cosmic" an essential song in the Sol-Angel catalog. Beautifully sung by Solange, "Cosmic" had the potential to be one of the more commercial tracks on the album, and if transitioning the song into a thumping dance track in the last quarter was intentional--not a self-indulgent creative choice--than I admire the producers and their ability to finely edit a song simply because it is music, and not a dollar sign.
When the fat is trimmed and the lyrics decrypted, Sol-Angel & The Hadley St. Dreams is a fantastic re-debut by an artist that will undoubtedly become a major player in pop-soul for years to come. The challenge for Solange will be walking the fine line between saccharine pop and repellent, experimental R&B--but if "Sandcastle Disco," "Would've Been the One," and "T.O.N.Y." are any indication, she's got a better balance than we think.