When Jay-Z and Beyoncé showed up at a Grizzly Bear show in Brooklyn three years ago, I was working for Pitchfork and had to write a news story about it, because that’s what my life is like. In my original draft, I had a joke about how you kinda have to do what your sister-in-law wants to do when she’s in town. My editor took that joke out, telling me that we didn’t know that Solange Knowles dragged Jay and Bey to the show when they would’ve rather been spending quality time with their solid-gold pinball machine or whatever instead. Soon enough, though, we learned that I was right — that the show had been Solange’s idea and that Jay had not, in fact, been banging Yellow House in his Maybach on the way to Def Jam meetings. This was not a surprise. Plenty of big-money pop artists have experimented with indie-rock sonics, whatever that even means, in the past few years, and more will soon. (The smart ones will just hire Jamie xx and/or Frank Ocean, as Alicia Keys does on her own new album.) But Solange, alone in that universe, has always come across as the type of person who has serious opinions about what Deakin adds or takes away when he joins back up with Animal Collective. She’s someone who moves through the indiesphere without making it look like a pandering grab at a new audience — like she’s Big Boi throwing Wavves on an album track. And now that Solange has finally made her indie record, she’s made one that sounds like pop music, which is the smartest thing she could’ve possibly done.
True — which, at seven songs and 28 minutes, is trapped somewhere between an EP and an album — is kinda-famously out on Terrible Records, the label co-founded by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor. But it’s not her attempt at making Veckatimest, or even at a Twin Shadow record. She’s co-written and co-produced the entire thing herself. As her one big collaborator, she’s enlisted Blood Orange guy Dev Hynes, an artist who’s cycled through a half-dozen musical styles over the past decade before settling on a drug-dazed, ’80s-informed synthpop thing. And that’s a sound that suits Solange beautifully. Her voice isn’t an emotional-cannon WMD thing, like the thing her sister possesses. It’s nearly as dextrous, but it’s smaller and softer. And in her previous life as a major-label prospect, she’s always brought a tricky intimacy to her songs; the 2008 single “Sandcastle Disco” remains an unheralded favorite. And here, she focuses on her strengths by going even smaller, by reducing her sound to whispers and coos.
And so True is just an enormously likable little record, a lovelorn sigh that never bashes you over the head with anything. There are no obvious indie signifiers beyond; instead, we get smart and buried production tricks like the squiggly synth-bass on “Some Things Never Seem To Fucking Work” or the mumbly kinda-rap verse that Hynes turns in on that same song. If anything, Solange, like Frank Ocean or Miguel, is playing around with the R&B touches that have been showing up in indie-pop recently, showing you kids how someone with a real no-shit star-quality voice approaches this stuff. The songs are about breaking up, or being about to break up, or wondering why you broke up when you were really happier than you realized. And the lyrics are more specific than you’d expect from a Knowles: “Remember when you kissed me at Jimmy John’s when I was 17 / Convinced you were the shit.” They’re indecisive songs, songs about being trapped in uncertainty.
But it’s still a remarkably happy-sounding record; even its saddest songs breezy and weightless. First single and opening track “Losing You” is an absolute joy, a ripple of love. And if you were writing a cynical trend-piece about pop artists going indie, you might snark something about the way it reappropriates first-album Vampire Weekend’s Afropop appropriations. But those flourishes are more subtle and nuanced than that; they’re built right into the flow of the song, and nothing’s been built around them. And that’s true of the entire record; Solange and Hynes understand how its production tricks can serve its songs. And even when Solange vocally cuts loose, wordlessly vamping as tracks end, she does it quietly and assuredly, letting her ah-ah-ahhs circle around the tracks rather than trying to drown them. In making a record this graceful and assured, Solange and Hynes have struck a decisive blow against genre-based gimmickry, and we should thank them for that.
True is out now on Terrible.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The Wu-Tang/D-Block head-knocker collab Wu-Block.
• Alicia Keys’s unrelated-to-Hunger Games LP Girl On Fire.
• Pac Div’s sneaker-rap full-length GMB.