Solange semi-surprise-released her quietly stunning new album When I Get Home this month. The news set music social media atwitter, with quick takes of essential info on the dreamy ode to her Houston hometown, which includes guest appearancess from rappers Gucci Mane and Earl Sweatshirt, producers Metro Boomin and Panda Bear, and singers Pharrell Williams and Cassie.
My favorite tweet from that first day of Solange obsession came from one RK Jackson, an Atlanta resident self-identified as a “marketing ninja” and “aesthetics savant.” He posted a photo of the When I Get Home album cover side by side with a shot of Solange’s sister Beyonce fixing a fierce stare in a freeze frame from her 2016 “Formation” video. The caption: “No one womb should have all this power.”
That’s a clever nod to Kanye West’s self-aggrandizing King Crimson-sampling 2010 song “Power,” in which Yeezy marveled at his fabulous self: “No one man should have all that power.” The feminist script flip celebrates the procreational achievement of Solange and Beyonce’s mother, Tina Lawson, who gave birth to not just one but two acclaimed mononymic music stars.
But Solange is in her own lane. For a decade, she’s signified as the bohemian sister, a taste-maker who helped shaped the direction of alternative R&B andm, to a certain extent, her sister’s aesthetic. In 2009, she covered “Stillness Is the Move” by Brooklyn band Dirty Projectors. Her 2012 EP True, a collaboration with British songwriter Dev Hynes, contained the bopping “Losing You,” with a shot-in-South Africa video directed by Melina Matsoukas, who later worked closely with Beyonce on Beyonce and Lemonade.
The pairing got me thinking about sibling acts in general and performing sisters in particular, and how singular Solange and Beyonce are in that regard.
Of course, there are lots of singing sisters, with current notable incarnations including Canadian twins Tegan and Sara, Southern California troika Haim, French duo Ibeyi (whose name means “twins” in Yoruba), Indiana folk-pop tandem Lily and Madeline, and Chloe x Halle, the Atlanta sibs signed to Beyonce’s Parkwood Entertainment who sang at the Super Bowl and who were nominated for a best new artist Grammy this year.
And pop history is full of brother acts, too, sometimes as full-fledged family bands like the Beach Boys, Bee Gees, Jackson 5, Isley Brothers (who are celebrating the 60th anniversary of “Shout!” by playing the Pitchfork festival) and the Jonas Brothers, reunited in 2019 and likely to elicit ecstatic screams of joy by announcing a tour any second now.
Frequently, bro bands are duos who start out making music harmoniously before bickering sets in and they decide they just can’t stand each other. Prime examples in rock would include the Kinks, Oasis, the Blasters (personal favorites of mine whose bros Dave and Phil Alvin are making music together again, though not under the band moniker) and the Black Crowes.
Even when there’s not shared DNA, bands function and fall apart like families. With a genealogical connection, great things can happen before somebody decides they need space. The country music tradition of uncanny harmony singing stretches back to the 1930s with the Blue Sky Boys, and was carried forward by the incandescent Louvin Brothers and later Everly and Osborne Brothers.
Special mention should be made of brother and sister acts, such as 1970s duos Donny and Marie Osmond (still headlining in Vegas), Richard and Karen Carpenter, the latter of whom became a treasured pop icon after her anorexia-related death in 1983. And then there’s the White Stripes, the alt-rock ’00s duo who were former spouses but who pretended to be brother and sister in their own performative twist on the family band trope.
What every one of these acts has in common — and where they differ from Beyonce and Solange — is they all rose to fame in a family enterprise in concert with siblings. That’s the usual path. You start out by singing or bashing instruments around the house and form a band, or a stage parent like Joe Jackson or Beach Boys patriarch Murry Wilson puts himself in charge of monetizing his own children.
Solo careers like Michael Jackson’s meteoric arc or the battling Oasis bros Noel and Liam Gallagher typically happen after the family brand is established, and one individual decides his time has come and is tired of being defined by blood relations.
That path generally holds true even for indie rock luminaries the Crutchfield sisters — Katie, who records as Waxahatchee, and Allison, currently with Swearin’. But though the former Philadelphians have established themselves as artists of significance, they started out together in the Ackleys, and also played together as P.S. Eliot.
Two sets of sisters do come to mind that, like the Knowleses, forged high-quality careers separate from one another, both in country music.
Soulful torch singer Shelby Lynne started out as a mainstream country act in the late 1980s before being followed by her younger singer-songwriter sister Allison Moorer. After decades working apart, the two paired up on Not Dark Yet in 2017. And then there’s Loretta Lynn and her 19 years younger sister Crystal Gayle, whose 1977 hit “Don’t It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue” was a bigger pop hit than anything country legend big sis ever recorded.
Solange isn’t ever going to reach the level of popularity of her stadium-filling sister. But what’s impressive about what the 32-year-old singer has done, particularly with her 2016 album A Seat at the Table and now again with When I Come Home (Columbia ***), is carve out a career space as a major artist independent of and clearly differentiated from her megastar sibling five years her senior.
Solange did spend time as a Destiny’s Child backup dancer, and to many, she’s still most famous for an act undertaken on behalf of Beyonce: supposedly giving Jay-Z a beatdown in an elevator after the rapper allegedly cheated on his wife, a transgression that gave career fuel to both spouses with Lemonade and 4:44.
But Solange found herself as a mature artist in 2016 with A Seat at the Table, standing up as a quiet voice of racial pride demanding to heard in the heat of an election year while delivering memorable songs such as “Cranes in the Sky,” presented with languid choreography that’s never frenetic or confrontational.
When I Get Home, which arrived with a 33-minute Afro-Futurist black cowboy movie that’s viewable on Apple Music, picks up where Table left off, moving at a deliberate pace, proceeding at its own jazz- and funk-suffused semi-psychedelic speed as it pulls from H-town’s chopped and screwed aesthetic and one song drifts into another in an atmospheric haze.
It’s art music rather than pop music. Let Beyonce serve up bangers that simultaneously push the artistic envelope and reach the (not so) cheap seats. When I Get Home honors the sisters’ hometown with a seductive 39-minute listen deeply influenced by 1970s Steve Wonder and 21st-century Erykah Badu. It’s short on standout tracks that slap, to use the parlance of the day, but it weaves a captivating web.
The album coheres from the beginning, when Solange starts by repeating, “I saw things I imagined” like a mantra, calling her dreams into being. But it’s also the sort of record that an oily music exec like the one Mike Myers portrays in Bohemian Rhapsody would listen to and exclaim, “I don’t hear a single!”
The track that follows “Things I Imagined” shows Solange has sisterhood on her mind. It’s an interlude called “S McGregor,” named for the Houston street where actress siblings Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen grew up, and it features those sisters reading a poem written by their mother, Vivian Ayers.
As Houstonians who each attained fame in the 1980s — with The Cosby Show and Fame, respectively — Rashad and Allen are useful points of comparison, and no doubt Allen was inspirational to Solange as a younger sister who made good.
But there’s a closer, more contemporary sister comparison to world-beating women where the younger star happens to burn the brightest. In that transcendent pop culture superhero analogy, Beyonce is to Serena Williams as Solange is to Venus. The more sensational superstar rises above all competitors. But her sister is a champion, too.