Beyoncé is the sort of superstar who lets you know how much work and sweat go into being a superstar. That’s always been part of the draw, and it’s always played well to the above-ground mass audience that values work as much, if not more, than they value artistry. In contrast, Solange has quietly expended a lot of effort to come off nonchalant, if not outright indolent, at least in the wake of her by-the-numbers R&B debut, Solo Star, in which she borrowed her big sister’s playbook with decidedly mixed results.
Since then, Solange has calculatedly positioned herself as a would-be underground alternative superstar for the cognoscenti. On her second album, the Age of Aquarius-dwelling Sol-Angel and the Hadley Street Dreams, she paid tribute to Marvin Gaye, a too-perfect touchstone of comparison. Like Gaye, Solange’s approach is meandering, hazily experimental, and preoccupied with the recent past, whereas Beyoncé is Stevie Wonder—unapologetically virtuosic, busy, and polished. The older sister marries Jay-Z, the younger sister pals around with Grizzly Bear somewhere in Williamsburg.
If the atmosphere of effort is the dividing line, then the seven-song EP True may be Solange’s most defining statement to date. Even under a half hour, it still manages to wear itself out. It opens with the welcoming “Losing You,” an airy midtempo dance ballad in which slightly off-tempo loops and lightly mismatched samples provide the syncopation. Accompanied by a cute/maladroit music video that suggests Erykah Badu playing Little Orphan Annie somewhere in a shantytown, the single functions as a mission statement when Solange sings, “I gave you everything and now there’s nothing left of me.” The zone where nothing’s left is precisely where Solange finds her creative spark.
The rest of the EP is straight-up termite R&B ‘80s revivalism, with nihilistic Jan Hammer programming (“Bad Girls”), Prince-protégée synth squiggles (“Don’t Let Me Down”), and a beat halfway between freestyle and Miami bass (the standout “Locked in Closets”). Solange’s vocals never strain for effect, but rather roll over for the opposite, which is an odd but endearing stance to take when your tune is titled, for instance, “Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work.” True is intended as a warm-up to her third full-length album proper, and part of me hopes she injects just a little more falseness into her endeavor.