understanding solange’s ‘sol-angel and the hadley st. dreams’
In 2008 Solange began taking her career into her own hands, stepping away from the pop sound of her first album, and releasing a more assured, Motown-influenced LP. This set the wheels in motion for a singular, defiant career.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.
By the time Solange Knowles was 21 years old, she had already confronted many of the typical peaks and nadirs of adulthood. She had married and then shortly after divorced her high school sweetheart, delivered her son, Julez, and in the midst of all of this, made the bold decision to change the trajectory of her music career.
This transitional period marked a major turning point in both her personal life and musical career, which she documented in her second studio album Sol-Angel & The Hadley St. Dreams. Looking back at the album 11 years and four projects later, it appears to represent way more than a musical indexing of her life at the time. The 2008 album officially set the tone for what would become of the singer-songwriter’s unhinged and unfiltered sonic, lyrical and artistic aesthetic.
Sol-Angel & The Hadley Street Dreams -- named after a plot of land in downtown Houston where her father once told her he had a dream of building a studio -- is Solange’s first true introduction to the artist she is now. Although it was the singer-songwriters second studio album, following the 2002 release of Solo Star, this album was now mostly driven by Solange’s musical sensibilities. She had just begun embarking on her journey to compose music that was not dictated or created to reflect any of the popular music of the time or the demands of music labels and radio programmers.
Over lively R&B and soul-beats inspired by the sounds of Motown 60s icons like The Supremes, Solange used this album to clearly verbalise who she was and who she was not. In the opening track, God Given Name, she warned listeners that she’s more than just Beyonce’s little sister -- “I'm not her and never will be / Two girls going in different directions” -- that her music was not the most conventional or easy to understand, and that she will no longer accept being labelled or confined to any boxes. She affirmed her stance singing, “Leave your labels, lead with no vision / Hear my voice and feel with your ears / I'm no soul girl equipped with no Afro / I'm just my God given name”.
Lyrically, Solange was candid and raw about her personal life and, in particular, her experience with heartbreak. White Picket Dreams revealed a break-down in a relationship that was not as picture perfect as she had once thought. As she’s unpacking this devastating realisation, she also remains hopeful that her white picket dreams will return once again, but with an alternative image that better suits the new goals and aspirations of an evolving young adult. It’s a track that’s both vulnerable and reassuring to herself and listeners going through similar experiences.
There were no spaces for the extended instrumental breaks and unfilled spaces that Solange would later prominently feature in her last two albums. There were no mysterious or thought-provoking interludes or a short stream of consciousness on 30-second tracks. But there was a certain urgency about a young woman newly exposed to the complexities of fame, to explain her story. She used lyrics as her primary response method and soulful rhythmic beats to make what some would describe as dark or upsetting experiences more digestible and appealing. Like Marvin Gaye and the other 60s soul artists that preceded her, she used uptempo melodies to tell both stories of beauty and the blues.
R&B dance track Would’ve Been the One described an unpromising future for a woman being cheated on and the man she’s trying to so hard to change. One of the album’s lead singles I Decided, Pt. 1, an up-beat, dance-y number in tempo -- which was remixed by Freemasons and included on the album -- featured a confession by Solange that she found love and wanted the world to know. In the latter’s accompanying video, Solange danced and sung in front of moving pop-art visuals that featured animations of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party’s Kathleen Cleaver. She wore flashy costume dresses and vintage prints and rocked a full wavy, Diana Ross-inspired fro. These visuals were early signs of Solange’s love for memorialising the expansiveness and beauty of Black life and her commitment to creating visuals that directly reflect thematic nature of her music.
At the time, Amy Winehouse and Solange were among the few young contemporary artists creating popular music inspired by 60s classic soul music. Only a short time after Solange’s 2008 release, artists like Adele and Leon Bridges would find massive commercial success with the same music and aesthetic. Both Sol-Angel & The Hadley St. Dreams and her follow up LP True (2012) could be credited for helping to kickstart the trend of nostalgic R&B and soul.
Solange may have begun to take more control of her music during this project, but she had yet to curate a sound and vision -- an entire world -- of her own. Because she heavily employed the sounds, clothes, and hairstyles of the 60s, her style and persona were dictated by a specific blueprint that had already been set in stone. She seemed almost to be wearing a costume and leading the performance of a 60s tribute singer with remixed lyrics. It wasn’t until Solange’s follow-up projects, that she found a way to incorporate the sounds she loves most and set them in a contemporary setting that reflected her current realities and fulfilled her Afro-futuristic fantasies.
Despite the fact that Solange was more explicitly honest about her life in this album, in a way it did not reveal much more of her story than any of her other more nuanced projects. The urge she had to explain and self-analyse publicly became less and less essential in her music. Whether or not listeners understood her story or knew it at all was no longer a concern. What has remained the same is her ability to thoughtfully reflect and share her emotions through sounds that may not be popular today, but will most likely integrate into the pop sounds of tomorrow.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.