Solange Knowles steps out of Beyonce’s shadow with album A Seat at the Table
A number one album for Solange and all of a sudden the world has discovered there was something more happening in the Knowles family of Houston, Texas, than the globe-bestriding older sister Beyonce.
Who knew? Where has she been? And what’s with the family habit of careers based on a single name?
The surprise and the questions are reasonable given her new album, A Seat at the Table, is Solange’s first chart topper in the US, while Beyonce has achieved that six times as a solo artist (that is, a number one for each of her albums) and twice before that with her group, Destiny’s Child.
There is probably no more famous or recognisable popular music act right now in the world than Beyonce. Having become a vocal presence on race and sexual relations, she can stir up political and law enforcement debates, and anger white, right-wing bloviators, with a filmclip, an unannounced record or an appearance in the players’ box at a major tennis tournament. No one competes with that.
Musically speaking though, it’s absurd to say Solange has come out of the shadow of her sister. Younger by nearly five years than the multi-media phenomenon sibling, Solange has been a bit more than a quiet achiever as a songwriter – including for Destiny’s Child – and a solo artist prepared to venture well outside the R&B lines.
While Beyonce’s two most recent, career re-defining albums – Beyonce and Lemonade – have incorporated many styles, even country music, and been direct and frank about marriage, sex and race after a couple of decades making often brilliant but mostly easily categorisable and lyrically untroubled pop/R&B, Solange has been venturing far and wide for years. Literally, in the case of her time in Australia in 2010 working with electro-pop artists/producers Midnight Juggernauts.
There’s been explorations of African sounds and rhythms, children’s music, psychedelia, electronica and pop. There was an album recorded as a teenager, Solo Star, which was more directed by others than led by her, and then her first adult album, Sol-Angel And The Hadley St. Dreams, which dived into her divorce, parenthood and establishing an identity as a woman.
That A Seat at the Table explores both female and black identity in contemporary America, much as Beyonce and Lemonade do, is less about following in the footsteps of big sister and much more about existing in the same warped and sometimes wonderful culture that can offer you Michelle Obama and Michelle Bachmann, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Beyonce and Kanye, or – for a Texas imagined as well as real – Tami Taylor and Ted Cruz.
Finally, it’s appropriate in a way that the closest competition for Solange’s number one album this week was the new one from Bon Iver, the more-art-than-commerce alternative pop artist whose breakthrough was an album recorded in a snow-buried cabin that later inspired a most unexpected collaboration with Kanye.
Here are two artists with left-field tendencies, adventurous spirits and famous associations who have become unlikely but probably overdue, stars.