Solange steps nimbly out of a looming shadow and into a much-deserved spotlight

I was too young to see Janet Jackson perform at the 1987 Grammys so I didn’t get to experience the ascendance of Jackson as a mighty pop star in her own right, completely separate from the shadow of her brother Michael Jackson. When I started listening to music, Jackson was already a huge star.

Product DetailsBut I imagine I felt something akin to it at the Pitchfork Music Festival on July 20th. I went to see Belle & Sebastian, but Solange was a nice extra. I was aware of her as a minor celebrity and singer, namely because she’s the younger sister of Beyonce Knowles, our generation’s Diana Ross. I knew that Solange put out an album a decade ago – Solo Star – that didn’t go anywhere. The album was decent, cookie-cutter R&B/urban pop circa 2003 – sounding like cast-offs from one of her bigger sis’s smash albums. She sort-of disappeared from the music scene, popping up occasionally as an actress.

Then in 2008, she came out with one of the most fantastic singles I’ve heard in the 2000’s – “I Decided” a wonderful, credible update on the Motown sound. And then poof – again, she seemed to have gotten lost in the vast, yawning musical landscape.

And this past year I heard rumblings that Beyonce’s little sister has gotten all hipster on us. She started to emerge as a fashionista, moving away from the more traditional glamor of Beyonce, to a more eccentric, distinct style.

So going to Pitchfork, I was pleasantly surprised – very surprised, actually at just how enjoyable and interesting Solange’s music.

Firstly, she bounded on the stage in impossibly high heels, wearing a loud, silken outfit, her hair all natural and gorgeous. Unlike Beyonce, she doesn’t have the voluptuous curves – though she shares her sister’s stunningly gorgeous face. But unlike her superstar sister, Solange is all sharp angles, and is joyfully geeky and lovely. She doesn’t merge with an army of backup dancers to execute break-neck speed, over-choreographed moves, but instead looks like every girl who moves with free abandon, without a trace of self-consciousness – she does an adorable running man during “Losing You.” I don’t have a video of the Pitchfork performance – but below is a very similar performance at an Austin, TX music festival.

All of this would be enough, but Solange’s new music is fantastic. The songs have more in common with Janelle Monae or Kelis, and less with Beyonce, Rihanna, and the scores of other urban-pop divas churning out hits. The minimal, synthetic aesthetic will recall the 1980s – but not in a sad, nostalgic way, but a credible, committed way.

As a singer, Solange has a sweet, lilting voice – small and pretty. She doesn’t hit mile-high notes, nor does she rumble with a soulful growl. Instead she’s got a tiny sweet croon that will recall Janet Jackson’s lovely little trill at her peak. And even though her singing was overwhelmed by the music, she commanded the stage, regardless of any vocal limitations – after all, pop music isn’t about singers who can hit every note, but it’s about attitude – and Solange’s easy, relaxed, and intellectual persona is wonderful.

Belle & Sebastian performed beautifully – at one point during the band’s set, it started to rain heavily, but the band members continued undeterred, even pulling enthusiastic audience members onto the stage. That B&S did very well was not a surprise. But I came away from Pitchfork with an awed appreciation for Solange, and hope that she will continue to grow as an artist at her current speed.

The opening line of “I Decided” has Solange sing, “I was a little different. I didn’t do what the best girls do.” And that lyric is true. And while it’d be a stretch to call Solange an underdog – she’s a beautiful, talented, and wealthy young woman – but she’s just weird enough (weird in a good way – weird in the awesome way – like that kid you knew in high school who could fold origami swans or could recite the periodic table verbatim or the girl who put together her outfits from her mother’s and grandmother’s closets) to inject some much-needed humor, humanity, and an “I don’t care what other people think” attitude into the oft-cynical and over-processed world of pop music.

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