Solange Knowles, the forever overshadowed little sister to the most magnetic and accomplished pop icon of the era, has formed a persona based on being slyly, yet conspicuously, in-the-know—and not totally interested in all that gaudy attention anyway. And while that might be a perfectly valid coping mechanism, it’s kind of a weird zone for a would-be pop star to inhabit. It took a while to get her there. She’s been writing and recording with big-name producers since age 14, passing through 2008’s slick, Motown-worshipping (and Boards of Canada-sampling) Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams with some chart success, but not much of a hold on the popular imagination.
For the past few years, her output has been sparse and esoteric: dueting with Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes, releasing a chic Dirty Projectors cover, popping up on 12-inch DFA singles. A deal with Chris “Grizzly Bear” Taylor’s Terrible Records followed, and the first fruit of that arrangement is True, a seven-song EP recorded in close creative contact with British musician Dev Hynes, formerly known as Lightspeed Champion and currently as Blood Orange. We’re long past the point where a Brooklyn indie label dabbling in pop and R&B is particularly surprising, but True, a set of mainstream pop songs delivered at a medium energy level insufficient for a pop-radio breakthrough and, really, missing the gut-punch hooks needed to compete there, is still a curious product.
Pleasant breeziness is True’s default tone and best asset. Hynes’s production work is tasteful; it's never abrupt or jarring. Cool touches aren’t tough to find: the Marvin Gaye-ish murmurs on “Losing You,” the dark but warm beats on tracks like “Locked in Closets” or “Don’t Let Me Down.” The music might be too timid to be truly stylish, though. Instrumentals that don’t draw attention to themselves clear up lots of room that Solange doesn’t quite fill. Her airy voice is always technically proficient but lightly felt. The tracks tend toward idle, seeming longer than they actually are. It succeeds in establishing a mood that's frustratingly low-impact. It never nears the Pavlovian “I need to hear that again!” effect of the best pop.
The focus on subtlety was clearly a choice rather than a failure to execute big, brassy hits. And it feels wrong to get super worked up over things that Solange isn’t—to project bold pop aspirations on her when her aims are more modest. But there’s a deeper disconnect. The EP ends with “Bad Girls,” a song sung from the point of view of a party-starting troublemaker found in one of her quiet moments, regretting the train wreck that came before the scene fades out. True is all quiet moments, though. Solange makes it tough to imagine that she was ever possessed with wild abandon or ever in the grips of the overpowering love rather than just ruminating on its outskirts. Not every song needs to be stuck in a thrill. But maybe one of them could be?