Beyonce Knowles is a superstar, a multiple-threat singer, dancer, and sometimes-actress, a mogul's wife, a nice girl who can also get away with hollering, "Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?" when she covers Alanis Morissette in concert. Of all her roles, the one least discussed is that of older sister. Solange Knowles, five years younger than Beyonce, doesn't have the name recognition, record sales, or high-profile marriage of her big sister. But she just might be evolving into a more interesting—and more fun—musical artist.
Unlike Beyonce, who had the benefit of starting her career in the carefully groomed, packaged environment of girl group Destiny's Child, Solange started out as a solo artist. Though she sang on Destiny's Child tracks, and her father briefly discussed adding her to the act, the idea was eventually scrapped, and Solange began working on her debut album at 14, a record that's now out of print. Also unlike her sister, who is famously if quietly married to Jay-Z, Solange married her high school sweetheart at 17, and months later gave birth to her first child; she was divorced three years later. Solange has also been the frequent target of fashion critics like the Fug Girls. All of this combined makes for cheap and easy psychoanalysis about the little sister tagging along in her more successful big sister's footsteps.
But if you watch Solange carefully, it's clear that she's doing something entirely different from Beyonce. While Beyonce is painfully scripted and image-controlled, Solange launched a photoblog last month that documents her playing around on the beach in Tasmania and shooting prom-style pictures with the designer Jeremy Scott. It's an accessible, fun, relaxed project, one that provides an appealing sense of who Knowles is.
That breezy style is characteristic of her music, too. Beyonce's characteristic mood in her songs is one of dead seriousness. Among her recent hits, "If I Were a Boy" is a somber exploration of gender roles and expectations in relationships, "Halo" is a full-bodied, sincere declaration of love, and even the pop-culture phenomenon "Single Ladies" isn't really about going out and having fun: it's a cautionary tale to the man who failed to "put a ring on it." By contrast, Solange appears to have a sense of humor and readily deploys it.
"Can you please turn me up a little bit more?" she coos at the beginning of "I Decided," a sweet slice of pop about being wooed and won. The video for the song takes her from the '60s to science-fiction, juxtaposing candy-colored bikini-shaking girls with images of Malcolm X and pink-sequined tanks. Deciding to trust your heart to someone may be a big decision, but Solange, unlike her sister, is willing to play with that idea, to be a little coy with it, rather than approaching it directly. Like a flirtation, the video darts back and forth between jokes and sincerity:
And in "Sandcastle Disco," a lovely, effervescent track, Solange is similarly sweet and playful in her address, "I play tough as nails with my heart on my sleeve / I'm nothing but a sandcastle, baby don't blow me away." She's not afraid to be vulnerable, either, though she manages to do it without sounding tragic, acknowledging, "Baby, I know you do that to all the girls / You know that I'm fragile." In the video, she dances across piano keys and drums, and lounges across a guitar neck, even in a nudge at her own abilities, poses as a pinup against a Warholesque background of cans of "Solange's Can I Sing Soup":
It's certainly not as coherent, polished, or high-tech as her sister's music videos, but Solange looks like she's having a wonderful time.
And while Beyonce has basically settled into a pop formula that makes excellent use of her beautiful voice, Solange continues to experiment. She covered of experimental rock band Dirty Projector's "Stillness is the Move," which threw in Dr. Dre and Erykah Badu samples for good measure. And for all the jokes about her fashion sense, the cover got her invited to perform with the band at hipster fashion house Opening Ceremony's store launch (Knowles is also an Armani Jeans ambassador):
Continuing her indie cred, Jay-Z and Beyonce may have gotten credit for drawing attention to Brooklyn folk-rock band Grizzly Bear last summer by attending one of their shows, but they were there because Solange is Twitterfriends with members of the band.
And she's taken on mainstream stadium rock, too, recording a fantastic, rearranged cover Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" that fully incorporates her backup singers' voices, working with a band in a way that Beyonce's dominant, dominating voice would make difficult:
Solange's restlessness may keep her from ever achieving her sister's heights, but it may also take her to places her sister's unlikely to be a hit, like next week's SXSW festival, where she's again part of the lineup. And given how good that Tasmanian beach looks in winter, and how good the company seems like she'd be, I'm happy to go with her.