Solange Knowles’ music career was never going to play out like her big sister’s — we knew as much 13 years ago.
In 2003, Beyonce ruled the Hot 100 chart for 17 weeks combined with “Crazy In Love” and “Baby Boy,” the first two singles from her non-Destiny’s Child debut album, Dangerously in Love — a blockbuster hit and Top 40 catnip for the girl-group leader, earning five Grammy nominations and securing her status as a solo superstar. Earlier in 2003, Beyoncé’s little sister had also released a debut album, titled Solo Star, and despite a radio-friendly R&B-pop sound (and an impressive list of collaborators — The Neptunes, Timbaland and even Bey herself all contributed production), the full-length received a tepid response and failed to notch any singles on the Hot 100. Worse, Solo Star couldn’t establish an identity for the singer-songwriter, playing out like a collection of cast-offs from R&B contemporaries like Mya and Ameriie. In the same year that Queen Bey’s reign was kicking off, Solange couldn’t live up to the name of Solo Star.
Now, she has. With third album A Seat at the Table — released on Friday (Sept. 30), Solange has come into her own as a singular voice, and sought-after collaborator in the alt-R&B world. A Seat at the Table has matched the critical acclaim of Bey’s Lemonade album from earlier this year, becoming Solange’s first Best New Music on Pitchfork and garnering a 90 average on the review aggregator Metacritic. And A Seat at the Table will almost certainly become Solange’s highest-charting release to date, eyeing a No. 2 debut on next week’s Billboard 200 chart (her previous high was No. 9 with her 2008 sophomore album Sol-Angel & The Hadley St. Dreams).
“It’s been a hell of a journey,” Solange told the crowd at her A Seat at the Table album listening last week. Considering her nearly decade-long metamorphosis, that statement feels like an understatement. Here’s how Solange stepped out of Beyoncé’s shadow and delivered one of the most crucial albums of 2016:
She Went Independent. Following the release of the underwhelming Sol-Angel, Solange decided to leave Interscope Records and not search for another major label to call home. “Although it’s been a wonderful journey & experience at Interscope Records, after truly recognizing what’s important to ME as an artist, I decided it was time for me to continue my path on a more independent platform,“ she said in a November 2009 statement. After a pair of albums that unsuccessfully aimed at the mainstream, Solange made a conscious play to make music on her own terms.
She Became an Indie Darling. What happens when you get Jay Z and Beyoncé to rock out to some sweet, sweet Veckatimest in Williamsburg? If it’s 2009, you get rampant indie-blog coverage, which is what happened when Solange invited her sister and brother-in-law to a 2009 Grizzly Bear show in Brooklyn. In hindsight, the Pitchfork navel-gazing was a bit overblown… but when Solange dropped a gorgeous cover of Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness Is The Move” that year, she became a full-blown blogosphere hero.
She Found a Musical Muse. On her quest to find a “much different sound” for her Sol-Angel follow-up, Solange began working with Dev Hynes — the mastermind of Blood Orange — in 2010, thanks to a tip from her friend Theophilus London. Two years later, Solange released a seven-song EP, True, that was fully written and produced with Hynes. Solange had found a collaborator that could pair her graceful vocals with playful melodies and rhythmic arrangements, highlighted by the pulsating melancholy of lead single “Losing You.” Released on the indie Terrible Records and clocking in at 27 minutes, the True EP was a low-risk, high-reward release for Solange, and a turning point for Hynes, who was less than a year away from releasing his own full-length breakthrough, with Blood Orange’s 2013 LP Cupid Deluxe.
She Toured, and Toured, and Toured. The True EP was followed by a sprawling set of live dates for Solange, a charismatic live performer who finally had a celebrated body of work to play through. Solange was a staple at major festivals like Bonnaroo, Made In America and Essence Fest in 2013 and 2014; at Coachella two years ago, she brought out Beyoncé for a giddy dance break and promptly upstaged the Outkast reunion.
She Gathered R&B’s Next Class. In May 2013, Solange announced that she had started her own label, Saint Records, which would be distributed by Sony. Six months later, the label issued its first release, a compilation titled Saint Heron that featured 12 original songs from some of R&B’s most promising newcomers. Saint Heron received more positive reviews as Solange’s quasi-follow-up project to the True EP, and spotlighted artists like Kelela and Sampha, both of whom went on to further solo acclaim, and were featured on A Seat at the Table three years later.
She Spoke Out. A year before it appeared as the opening song on A Seat at the Table, Solange debuted “Rise,” a song written “for Ferguson, for Baltimore,” in May 2015. In the months that followed, Solange covered Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” onstage, commented on the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castle by reinterpreting Syreeta’s “Black Maybe” online, and shared an essay about a troubling experience at a predominantly white concert. As fans awaited her third full-length, Solange hinted at its meditations on the black experience in modern America through her words and music.
She Recruited A-List Talent (Without Drowning Herself Out). Beyoncé is not featured on A Seat at the Table, and neither is Hynes. With Andre 3000, Lil Wayne, Kelly Rowland, The-Dream, Q-Tip and Raphael Saadiq all involved this time out, however, they’re not missed, as Seat boasts numerous stunning collaborations while keeping its central message intact.
Gone are the big hooks and dance-floor bait from Solange’s first two albums, replaced with fuzzed-out funk and beautifully rendered tales of black pride. And while Solange’s gently fluttering voice has long been a source of intrigue, it’s now being used to prod at society, reflect on intimate memories and expand the limits of her sound in a way that makes her an essential figure in popular music. Yes, A Seat at the Table has a rock-solid guest list — but Solange herself never relinquishes your attention. The album is the apex of a long upward journey, and from here, Solange can go anywhere she wants.