Solange Knowles opened True, her bold and luminous 2012 EP, with a question that is both deceptively simple and heartbreakingly naive: “Tell me the truth boy, am I losing you for good?” It’s a rhetorical question, one that feels strange to hear spoken aloud. If someone is in the process of falling out of love with you, it’s perhaps unrealistic to expect them to be so open about those feelings in real time. But the question is emblematic of the sort of truth Solange is searching for on this record: honest even to the point of being unreasonable, a demand for a deeper truth within herself and everyone around her.
True was released at a crucial point in Solange’s career, when she was just starting to figure out her particular artistic persona and sound. Aside from individual hits like 2011’s “TONY,” the albums she had released so far had not been met with huge critical acclaim nor particularly enthusiastic praise from fans. The artist’s previous records, which include 2002 debut Solo Star and 2008’s Sol-Angel And The Hadley St. Dreams, range from pop to more traditional R&B, occasionally incorporating elements of old school motown or funk. Both albums have consistently pleasant uptempo grooves and impressive standout tracks, but they lack the original artistry and cohesive worldbuilding displayed in Solange’s later works.
Solange famously took Beyoncé and Jay-Z to see Grizzly Bear in concert in 2009. The association continued on True, which was released through Grizzly Bear bassist Chris Taylor’s Terrible Records. It wasn’t the project’s only connection to the indie rock world. On True, Knowles collaborated with musician and producer Dev Hynes, who was in the midst of a metamorphosis of his own. Hynes had gotten his start in the British dance-punk band Test Icicles and then gone solo as Lightspeed Champion, making folksy indie rock with Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes. But in 2011 he’d released Coastal Grooves, his debut under the new artistic persona Blood Orange, pivoting to a misty blend of ‘80s new wave, funk, R&B, post-punk, and more. Hynes would continue to develop that sound over the ensuing decade, becoming an underground pop star in his own right. But first, in 2012, Solange and Hynes designed a fresh new sound that felt true to Solange as an artist: a blend of alternative R&B and dream pop that leaves room for both introspection and pure fun.
The ideas of honesty and authenticity are addressed on True in a number of different ways. On the album’s second track, “Some Things Never Seem To Fucking Work,” a boldly percussive yet deeply introspective anthem, Solange strips a lover of his deceitful facade to confront his True nature. “I’ve seen you with the lights off, I’ve seen you when you think you love me, I’ve seen you with your hat off,” she recalls. At the same time, the song finds Solange recanting on the lies she had long told herself about the relationship: “convinced myself you were the shit, convinced myself you loved me,” she laments. On downtempo and ethereal “Lovers In The Parking Lot,” the artist sings of a one-sided relationship wherein she got involved with a man who was in love with her even though she wasn’t ready to commit. “Baby I loved you but I was not done having my fun,” the artist admits. True is not so much about being honest with others as it’s about being honest with yourself; Solange is confronting the hurt and disappointment she feels head on so that she can move through it.
Since its release, True has by many standards been eclipsed by 2016’s A Seat At The Table and 2019’s When I Get Home, which were released to greater fanfare and critical acclaim. Though the artist’s later works have certainly benefited from more rigorous technical production, True continues to stand out for — unsurprisingly — its honesty. The album finds Solange at her most vulnerable, free-spirited, and messy, fucking up in her relationships and lamenting past loves. Four years later, A Seat At The Table established Solange’s persona as ethereal, regal, and even political: She sings of racialized rage on “Mad” and of the cultural significance of Black hair on “Don’t Touch My Hair.” The record was impressive and groundbreaking, and in a way makes True feel even more special — a peek into the imperfect, unfailingly human side of the musician before she became an untouchable star.
At its best, this is what True accomplishes: a candid portrait of the grand, messy layers of the human experience. “Losing You” is such a magic song largely due to its contradictions; it is everything that a breakup song, and in many ways a Solange production, should not be. Though the lyrics sing of heartbreak, the song’s instrumentals, replete with joyous percussion and wacky animal noises, feel anything but sad. The music video finds Solange goofily dancing with friends and strangers while donned in brightly colored pantsuits, a break from her carefully composed and often monochromatic aesthetic. It’s at once somber and joyful, nostalgic and optimistic — the exact rollercoaster of emotions that the demise of a relationship will often entail. On True, Solange offers us a universal truth not only through her lyricism but also in the emotional register of her musicality: Sometimes our endings are also our beginnings.