Solange Knowless tantalising fourth album conjures fragments and fleeting impressions that get inside your head
Solange, younger sister of Beyonc and the cult hero of the Knowles clan, has made a record that sounds at times like a collection of demos fleeting impressions of fluid, contemporary soul songs that fizzle out the moment theyre laid down, like a Snapchat album. Its in keeping with the increasingly avant-garde nature of R&B production today, which can be heard in everyone from Frank Ocean to Ariana Grande: songs feel like sketches; hooks and choruses matter less; and music is conceived, perhaps, with visuals in mind in the manner of Beyoncs Lemonade. This kind of music demands a lot of the listener short songs are harder on the attention span than long ones. Its as though Solange is saying: here is a mood, and here is another but perhaps, with our increasingly insular listening habits, a mood is exactly what we want our music to be.
Its taken Solange a while to find her sound, but shes had an interesting life along the way. Once a back-up dancer for Destinys Child (she stood in for Kelly Rowland when she broke her toes), she started working on her debut album at 14 and released it in 2002, aged 16. She was married at 17, had a son at 18, and by 2008 was getting a reputation among critics as the interesting sister: her second album, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St Dreams, was a slash of psychedelic noughties Motown. She entered many peoples consciousness after the eerie elevator incident in which she was caught on murky CCTV attacking Jay-Z, as a docile Beyonc stood by. The viral clip upped Solanges album streams by 200%, but her career route has never been clear cut: she once released a track called Fuck the Industry (Signed Sincerely) before A Seat at the Table, her third album, went to No 1 in 2016, just six months after Lemonade.
There are 19 tracks on When I Get Home, but blink and youre halfway through them, your mind fizzing with fluttery choruses and half-riffs. The introverted UK electronic producers James Blake and Sampha have left a huge impression on US R&B, and the latter has been working with Solange since A Seat at the Table. He can be felt here in the blue harmonies and sparse jazz piano of Time (Is), one of the albums most modest tracks.
Some of the albums most snippety bits such Things I Imagined, which runs to one minute 59 seconds are also the greatest earworms. The song is a single refrain repeated over a curiously modulating synth progression you can almost picture Solange standing next to a 70s organ, improvising her vocals, while Stevie Wonder picks out the chords. Way to the Show is essentially one exquisitely pretty line with an underlying coolness, like 90s Aaliyah. There are some intriguing production values too including what sounds like an AK-47 being reloaded and fired for the last 20 seconds, instead of a drum track.
Elsewhere, there are retro sense impressions and cinematic flashes: a sample of actors Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad, from the TV movie Superstars and their Moms, forms the backbone of S McGregor, named after a bypass in their and the Knowless hometown of Houston, Texas. The deep 70s funk of Down With the Clique could be David Axelrod and Can I Hold the Mic seems to be a manifesto of Solanges shapeshifting indecision: I cant be a singular expression of myself, theres too many parts, too many spaces
Amid these tantalising musical fragments, Almeda co-produced by Pharrell Williams and stretching to a comparatively whopping three minutes 56 seconds is a different beast: a powerful track with a clear political subtext. Black skin, black braids, black waves, black days Solange sings: Black faith still cant be washed away, not even in that Florida water (shes referring to a cologne used for ritual cleansing in Voodoo). Its a hazy, incantatory tribute to southern, chopped and screwed hip-hop, and her steely-eyed cry of Black molasses, blackberry the masses sounds like Janelle Mone rapping on Queen.
A powerfully laid-back mood is mirrored in My Skin My Logo, which sounds at first like endless product placement but is in fact a back-and-forth with trap maestro Gucci Mane, one of many men featured on the album (Playboi Carti, The-Dream, Devont Hynes, Metro Boomin, Tyler, the Creator) but whose presences are so faintly felt, often just a whispered vocal here and there, despite their big names.
There are interludes and intermissions aplenty; the blissed-out Beltway has shades of The Girl from Ipanema in its melody, and Binz is as catchy as a playground clapping game but both are over before you know it. Exit Scott (referring to another street in Houston) uses a gospel sample that could and would, in the past have been stretched out to make a hit single, but here it is, just one minute and one second long.
You sometimes wonder if were going through a revolution in listening. Things certainly seem to have gone full circle a few years ago, the industry was full of anxiety because no one had the patience to sit through full albums any more. Now, we no longer care about singles and bangers, preferring these odd, sophisticated, impressionistic experiences instead. Maybe they fit the attention span of the modern listener better. Or maybe we approach albums such as When I Get Home on a deeper level after all, because we are forced to returning to tracks repeatedly, deciphering all the half-songs, forcing them to stick. Whatever, Solange gets away with it, because once youve heard this record a couple of times, and whatever youre doing, her powerful little fragments will be playing in your head.