TIME Music

A Beginner’s Guide to Solange’s Music

Vulture Festival Presents MIA + Solange
Solange performs at Webster Hall on May 10, 2014 in New York City. Stephen Lovekin—2014 Getty Images

Solange's oeuvre deserves more attention than it's received since video leaked of her allegedly assaulting her brother-in-law Jay Z

By now you may be aware that Solange, Beyoncé’s younger sister, is in the news for allegedly getting into a fight with Jay Z on an elevator after the Met Gala. Probably inevitably, considering the number of stars and star-orbiters involved, the altercation spawned a lot of Internet jokes – there’s about a 50% chance none of them will be remotely funny when the full story inevitably comes out, so caveat meme-ptor – and a lot of explaining by the media of who exactly Solange is, some of it rather silly.

So here’s who Solange really is: an R&B artist, director and tastemaker (with label Saint Records), who’s made music for about a decade that varies from hooky to restrained to wildly creative and to – for lack of a better word – “indie.” She’s rubbed off on her sister, too; Solange has both directly written for Beyonce – B’Day’s “Get Me Bodied” and “Upgrade U” were both her co-writes – and influenced her in subtle ways, like introducing Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek to the Beyoncé songwriters’ circle.

In other words, there’s a lot in her career to catch up on, so we’ve put together a quick introductory course: the big singles, as well as a couple of the best album tracks.

(A quick note on song selection: A decade is a lot of music to cover, so we’ve limited this to solo tracks – no covers, which rules out her much-praised version of Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness is the Move,” and no collaborations, which rules out… a lot.)

“Losing You”

For a lot of people, this is Solange’s best-known track. The critically beloved lead single from 2012’s fantastic EP True, “Losing You” begins as a splashy street-party affair like Solange’s previous album Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams – more on that later – but quickly settles into a more melancholy groove. Over brooding synth pads, Solange handles producer Dev Hynes’ hymnlike melody like she’s turning and turning over the memories of a snuffed-out relationship: “Tell me the truth, boy, am I losing you for good?” The track doesn’t mope; it just doesn’t know what to think. Which means it can go on forever.

“Sandcastle Disco”

Unlike True, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams (2008) was a full album, both in terms of runlength and in terms of being a big statement: Solange’s first album in five years, and a musically omnivorous offering of bandleader Motown and dazzling pop that sounds flung into the future and past at once. R&B isn’t always too kind to these sorts of statements – for every Janelle Monae who’s celebrated for this kind of musical creativity, there’s an Amerie (and dozens more, actually) who slips mostly into obscurity – and it’s a testament to Solange’s connections and skill that it received the lasting praise it deserved.

Sol-Angel produced a few singles, but “Sandcastle Disco” – a minor hit in the UK – is among the most immediately catchy. Written with a pre-overexposure Cee-Lo Green and hyperprolific (if these days mostly, sadly, forgotten) R&B production duo Soulshock & Karmin, it’s a sunny, shuffling cut that wears its vulnerability like sandals soon to be tossed off.

A few more notes: The video for “Sandcastle Disco” is Solange’s directorial debut, and the clip’s poppy and splashy (and slyly self-aware – there’s a takeoff of Andy Warhol’s soup cans that shouldn’t be spoiled if you haven’t seen it.) “Sandcastle Disco” is also one of those tracks that sounds even better remixed. There are several mixes (most can be streamed), and in with the usual get-in-dance-get-out club remix fare are two standouts. King Britt’s house-piano reduction is ahead of its time (specifically, the house revival of the past two years), but I’m partial to Gomi’s mix, a wind of sounds against which Solange’s melody sounds as fragile as claimed.

“Would’ve Been the One”

If “Sandcastle Disco” is a bit self-conscious, a glitter-snowglobe version of its Motown source material, “Would’ve Been the One” is closer to the real thing: a piano-led sparkler, Solange belting and cooing the melody as flashily as possible. It’s one of the best showcases of Solange not just as a trendsetter or curator of sounds, but a singer, a song interpreter and a versatile one at that. The fact that it sounds timeless is just a bonus.

“Wonderland”

Solange’s debut, Solo Star, often gets overlooked, probably because it’s not trying to be an ambitious art piece with track titles like “Cosmic Journey” featuring Motown touches like historical nods, but a commercial R&B album, at least theoretically intended to move units. That didn’t quite happen, but it may just be a matter of luck, because Solo Star is a commercial album released in a year – 2003 – when commercial R&B was really, really good. (Solange has defended this point repeatedly in interviews, calling out people who pontificate about new R&B without even being familiar with the old stuff.) The stutter hook and skipping beat, by producer Rockwilder, are products of a radio landscape the Neptunes helped shape – and the fact that lead Neptune Pharrell’s producing everything again should clue you in to how good that was – and the radical optimism of Solange’s lyric is a nod to what she’d come up with next.

“Bad Girls (Verdine Version)”

True has yet to get a follow-up album, probably due to Dev Hynes’ feud with Solange. Even the subsequent singles didn’t quite connect – but it wasn’t for their quality. It’s just that True is a restrained, introverted kind of album, that works best as a whole, a sustained mood. “Bad Girls” is the moodiest of all, Solange taking a slow jam from Hynes’ project Blood Orange and flipping the lyric into a sort of answer song. (It’s best if you listen to the two tracks in tandem.)

Oh, and the Verdine in the title? Bassist Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire. The past year or so have seen lots of artists re-recruiting the great disco, funk and session musicians of the ‘70s – chiefly among them Chic’s Nile Rodgers – but true to True’s form, Solange is restrained about it. Part of that’s because she can be – it’s a lot easier to get Verdine White on your song when your last name is Knowles – but even so, it’s a statement, Solange claiming musical stature like it’s no big deal. By this point, she’s earned it.

TIME Music

Mariah Carey Ends the Hip-Hop Drought With “Thirsty”: Listen

Def Jam Records

After a few misfires, the diva nails her latest Me. I Am Mariah... The Elusive Chanteuse cut

Mariah Carey, by now, is a musical legend with a legacy as smooth as her voice. Even so, the leadup to her 14th album, the impeccably titled Me. I Am Mariah … The Elusive Chanteuse, has been a bit bumpy. Soft-rocking Miguel duet “Beautiful” was a hit, but throwback R&B tracks “The Art of Letting Go” and “You’re Mine (Eternal),” while classicist and impressive, underperformed – though not as much as Rick Ross showcase “Triumphant (Get ‘Em),” which Mariah was barely on. The song was relegated untriumphantly to promotional-single status and dropped from the album’s lineup.

“Thirsty,” which premiered today, is almost like an attempt to fix that, to get the hip-hop-influenced track right. Producer Hit-Boy (a couple of his eponymous hits: Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Paris,” Beyoncé’s “XO” and “Flawless”) gives Carey one of his signature beats: a minimalist synth hook that breaks into martial strings or imperial sangfroid when the mood calls for it. And this time Atlanta rapper Rich Homie Quan’s the one who gets dominated by Carey’s larger-than-life presence; he warbles Future-ish backing vocals on the hook while Carey dismisses the titular “thirsty” braggart.

The anti-scrub track is one of Mariah’s best looks – sometimes she even names names, as with Eminem on “Obsessed” – and as always, Carey makes it seem and sound utterly effortless. Listen below.

TIME Music

REVIEW: Michael Jackson’s Legacy Gets Honored (Mostly) on Xscape

For the first time in posthumous MJ history, the music can speak for itself

Old musicians don’t die. They don’t even fade away. They just become franchises. Like most artists who’ve been around longer than an album or so, Michael Jackson has a considerable vault of unfinished, unproduced or just unreleased tracks; and like most artists who’ve set multiple sales records per album, he’s got a vault that’s prime for plunder.

Xscape, out on Epic Records May 13, is the latest haul from that vault — and yet another in the sequel-crazed franchise that is posthumous Jackson. As with all posthumous records, the idea is inherently iffy, and it’s especially so in Jackson’s case given his beleaguered relationship with Sony and the dubious conditions of his death. A placeholder order page on iTunes had several reviews questioning the entire merit of the enterprise, sound unheard; they’re not fringe opinions but perhaps mainline. Nor does the posthumous Jackson business have the greatest track record, particularly when modern acts get involved; 2010’s disastrous Michael was marred by unfortunate Akon and Lenny Kravitz guest spots and credits-truther controversies; a few years later, on the reissues of Thriller and Bad, in with the demos and rarities were ill-advised remixes like EDM lunkhead Afrojack contorting the title track into a club thumper, complete with Pitbull and his moonwalk-related dad jokes.

None of this has escaped anyone involved with Xscape. “This isn’t record company greed, it’s art,” L.A. Reid said introducing the album at a listening party at Rockefeller Center (the first time in the U.S., though the Brits heard it roughly a week prior). “Some people say these are just outtakes left on the cutting room floor, but ‘Wanna Be Starting Something’ was written for Off the Wall. ‘Billie Jean’ almost didn’t make it [onto Thriller]!” If the powers that be sounded a tad defensive, it was only of Jackson’s legacy, specifically his “Jackson moments”: those first-burst encounters with Jackson’s music that make him worth the pre- and posthumous ado.

If Xscape is anything, it’s curated: eight tracks selected from 1983 to 1999. (The compact tracklisting means a couple promised tracks didn’t make the cut, including one, untitled for now, that reportedly would have included features from D’Angelo, Mary J. Blige and ?uestlove.) They’re unreleased, but they’re not new per se; it’s 2014, after all, and leaks are routine, and the appetite for unreleased Jackson material is much more voracious than anyone wants to admit. Despite the largesse of Epic Records and Jackson’s estate, much of this material had leaked at some point, in some form or other, and while most of it’s been scrubbed from the Internet, vestiges remain: bedroom acoustic covers, unsanctioned remixes, snippets from commercials, transcriptions of Jay-Z and Justin Bieber verses that were at one point attached, respectively, to “Twelve O’Clock” (now the memely, if unnecessarily tabloid-baiting, “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?”) and “Slave to the Rhythm.” (Part of Xscape’s “curation,” it seems, is curating the Google results to keep Biebs out of his legacy, which is downright noble.) But they’re not old, either.

Timbaland, who executive-produced the album with help from Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, Jerome Harmon, Stargate and John McClane, gave the old recordings some modern production juice, calling the process — to some press joshing — “contemporization.” But to their immense credit, unlike some recent “contemporizations” (Drake’s mopey exhumation of the Aaliyah vault comes to mind), the material on Xscape seldom sounds gimmicky, or too full of its producers’ personal brands. Even producers like Stargate, who sound so identikit-distinctive you can usually reverse-engineer songs they’ve had a hand in, go subtle. It helps that Jackson’s voice is too singularly frenzied to be overshadowed in a mix; it helps even more that occasionally, as on “Xscape,” the contemporizer and original producer (in this case, Darkchild) were one and the same. Only once on the album do things get glaring: “Blue Gangsta,” which even in its original form seemed like a concept missing its video-PR tour, is so much like beatboxed-and-screwed Timbo that it’s almost funny. Everything else is – stunningly – mostly natural.

Again, it helps that Xscape comes frontloaded with the safest (and earliest-recorded) track, now assisted by Justin Timberlake: “Love Never Felt So Good” is an opulent, warm disco-soul floorfiller in composition and, judging by a couple couples, in practice. It evokes Off the Wall as much as dead-on 2014, because these days disco is so trendy it practically comes pre-contemporized. “Loving You” is even more earnest, and if anything, its lonely-August nostalgia is only enhanced by its extramusical conditions. There’s the odd intriguing production detail — the four-four kick thump and synth line woven through Jackson and Stargate’s escalatingly dramatic “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” sounds as much like the ‘80s as, oh, Kate Boy, and “Slave to the Rhythm,” now de-Bieberized, is burbling protofeminist electro that’d suit any decade — but the bulk of the album rests, as is to be expected, on nostalgia. Funk cut “Chicago” hews too close to “Billie Jean” in sound and subject matter; later on, “The Way You Make Me Feel” makes an appearance – although, to be fair, there are worse tracks to evoke so heavily.

What isn’t present, by design and thankfully, is anything that acknowledges the past Posthumous Jackson flubs, or much controversy at all; as was Jackson’s tack, it’s all confined to the music. Late-career “Xscape” rages against the system, specifically “the man with the pen that writes the lies that hassle this man,” but not too obtrusively to pop. “A Place With No Name” is as much about its paranoid cautionary-fairy-tale story — a woman shows up out on the backstreets to spirit/seduce people to a place where, as Jackson screeches, “you have a friend!” — as its loping America sample. But controversy, once it meets the press, will out. It’s telling that the one track of the eight that’s received the most pre-coverage is the aforementioned “Do You Know Where Your Children Are,” which was quickly singled out as either Jackson’s response or brushoff of his abuse allegations. This is not only bunk – the track was written in 1985, and its title practically carbon-dates it to well before any of that particular controversy came out – but especially disappointing given the rest of Xscape. After all – possibly for the first time in Posthumous Jackson history – there’s enough music to speak for itself.

TIME Music

La Roux Forges a Comeback With “Let Me Down Gently”: Listen

2013 Electric Daisy Carnival New York - Day 1
Elly Jackson of La Roux performs at Electric Daisy Carnival in 2013 Daniel Zuchnik—Getty Images

It's been five years since La Roux had a surprise hit with "Bulletproof" — and now, they're back with something mellower, which is "like a morose flip of fellow synthpopper Robyn’s 'Call Your Girlfriend'"

Here’s a minor milestone for you: La Roux’s debut album is now five years old. It doesn’t quite seem it, probably because most of the British group’s accolades came well after the album’s release: a sleeper US radio hit (“Bulletproof”) in 2010, a surprise Grammy in 2011, what seemed at the time like the most success any of their ‘80s-throwback synthpop peers would attain without becoming Lady Gaga. (Another sign 2009 was a very different place: Lady Gaga used to be seen as La Roux’s peer.) But the success was short-lived; “Bulletproof,” despite becoming La Roux’s biggest hit both worldwide and back home in the UK, didn’t get a substantial follow-up, and new material was sparse. “Unless we manage to write a record in two weeks I don’t think there will be anything in terms of a second record for a while,” vocalist Elly Jackson told NME – again – five years ago.

After all that time, “Let Me Down Gently” is the first that’s been heard from the new record (not counting some live material in 2013), tentatively titled Trouble in Paradise. It’s far less splashy than most of La Roux: an ambivalent-attached breakup narrative, like a morose flip of fellow synthpopper Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend.” The track sounds it too: flanged synth washes, moody melodies, brooding background vocals, Jackson pained and aloof amid it all – singing, crucially, with little of her usual quirk – and, the clincher, a false stop in the middle before a full-on breakdown, sax and tears on the dance floor.

Listen below.

TIME Music

N.A.S.A. and Karen O Cover “I Shot the Sheriff”: Video Premiere

N.A.S.A. teams up with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O for a new take on a well-loved classic

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If you watched the Grammys this year, you might have noticed a musical curiosity that took place outside the broadcast proper: Karen O and N.A.S.A. (the hip-hop duo, not the space guys) covering Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” as lounge-y disco. Appearing in a Sonos ad, the cover threw in a lot: a little of the spacey experiments of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Mosquito, a little of the unabashed synthpop of the YYYs last album It’s Blitz, more than a little of the stylistic rapacity of N.A.S.A.’s The Spirit of Apollo (which featured Karen O, as well as about a quarter of the musical class of 2009), and a lot of this year’s love for neo-disco, the slicker the better.

“It’s always risky covering a classic, but the idea of completely re-contextualizing the song into a different genre sounded exciting to me,” Sam Spiegel of N.A.S.A. tells TIME. “One of my favorite collaborators and inspirations is Karen O, and she was the first person I reached out to.”

Animator San Charoenchai, who Spiegel met while working on his side project Maximum Hedrum, illustrated and directed the lyric video for the clip, and it’s as high-concept as the track – a soylent western, the frontier according to ‘70s futurism: a world of neon wanted posters, and bandits getting down to disco balls. Watch the premiere above.

TIME Music

Say Lou Lou Go for the Gold in “Everything We Touch” Video

The electropop duo's lush new single gets a sparkly video treatment

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Australian-Swedish duo Say Lou Lou – otherwise known as Elektra and Miranda Kilbey, twin daughters of The Church’s Steve Kilbey – emerged two years ago with an already fully-formed concept (twins! In a band! That even almost sounds like “Under the Milky Way!”). They already had plenty of peers – twins-in-a-band Tegan and Sara, particularly on last year’s Heartthrob, or fellow Swedish-Australian newcomers Kate Boy – and an impressively defined signature sound: sparkly synthpop, nocturnal and ‘80s and lightly sugary. It’s music for nights full of stars. Their latest single, “Everything We Touch,” has gotten a fair bit of traction – it’s been remixed by Yannis of Foals, among others – and now it’s gotten a video, too.

The other thing about “Everything We Touch” is that it’s got a doozy of a lyrics sheet — everything they touch turns to a high-fantasy word cloud of ashes and dragons and ghosts and flames – and if you were shooting a straight video of that, about thirty seconds in you’d realize you’d probably be better off submitting a script to Game of Thrones. It makes sense, then, that the video is more abstract: gold jackets, gold wash of glitter across the heavily lit sky, tasteful yearning (and, since it had to be mentioned, tasteful nudity) and more than enough atmosphere to match the sound.

Watch the clip above.

TIME Music

Pharrell Williams Casts a Lot of Non-Marilyns in “Marilyn Monroe” Video: Watch

The singer's latest video has lots of G I R Ls

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Pharrell’s G I R L is probably going to be synonymous forever with his omnipresent soundtrack cut-turned-No. 1 hit “Happy,” but its follow-up and opening track “Marilyn Monroe” might be an even better encapsulation of the album. In one song, it’s got the opulence of Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience: a Hans Zimmer string section like the one on “Pusher Love Girl,” which quickly becomes a disco string section; the loopy retro-disco that’s been a Neptunes hallmark from Kelis on; the New Age law-of-attraction horniness that finds its way into almost all of Pharrell’s work. (Think “like the legend of the phoenix” — basically, if a lyric sounds like a spiritual pamphlet reworked into a pickup line, it was probably written by Pharrell Williams.)

Marilyn Monroe, of course, is the most be-metaphored woman in pictures; even if you limit your scope to urban music of this decade alone, you’ll be able to find Marilyn-themed songs by Nicki Minaj, Brianna Perry and Chrisette Michelle, at least. But “Marilyn Monroe” isn’t really about Marilyn Monroe: it’s about all the ladies who are not Marilyn Monroe, but that’s OK, Pharrell doesn’t judge. This concept both lets Pharrell say “girl” (and G I R L) a lot, and lets him get a lot of girls into the video (most of whom look nothing like Marilyn Monroe), in a lot of settings and a lot of outfits, runway to risqué.

The video, directed by Luis Cervero, wisely doesn’t try to outdo the 24-hour-long shenanigans of the “Happy” video, opting instead for the playfully raunchy low-concept vibe of “Blurred Lines,” back when all anyone was saying about that clip was that it was “playfully raunchy.” (Put another way: If “Happy” was directed to launch a thousand GIFs, “Marilyn Monroe” was directed to launch a thousand well-timed screencaps. Of girls.) It’s the kind of video where large portions are set on a goofy lavender moonscape, where Pharrell’s hats practically get a feature credit, and where Kelly Osbourne interrupts the proceedings from nowhere, like she does on the track, to go on about the groove and disappear. Like G I R L, it knows that pop ubiquity should never be taken too seriously.

Watch the video above.

TIME Music

Sky Ferreira Heads to Compton in “I Blame Myself” Video: Watch

And she even dances

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After more than five years as a rising pop star, Sky Ferreira must be used to her singles going underappreciated, and “I Blame Myself” was the most underappreciated track off last year’s already great Night Time, My Time. Indebted less to ‘90s alt than the kind of sparkly, introspective pop that’s not tied to any decade – like Ferreira’s own “Everything Is Embarrassing” – it was both immediate and searing, sparing no fury for the intersection of condescension, sexualization and (“it’s like talking to a friend who’s trying to be a lover”) she encountered while churning through the major-label teen pop machine, while never being obvious. It goes right for the throat: of its targets, of its hooks.

It’s also, with its John Hughes closing-credits vibe, fertile material to turn into a video. Sadly, the clip for “I Blame Myself” is not really so topical, a fakeout of a gangsta rap clip that – shock? – doesn’t star a gangsta rapper but a be-hoodied Sky, fresh out of the stylist’s room — or at least the “LoveGame” storyboard. There is about a 50 percent chance you will encounter a thinkpiece about this by the end of the week.

 

TIME Music

The Black Keys Go Slick Psychedelic on “Turn Blue”: Listen

Hear the title track from the band's upcoming LP

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Blues-rockers the Black Keys, thanks to their big-stage breakthroughs Brothers and El Camino, occupy an enviable niche: one of the ever-dwindling number of unquestionably rock acts who’ve got an audience and scope larger than the back of a radio-rock playlist or an early-afternoon festival slot. Their longtime producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton is in a pretty good spot, too, working this year with on albums as entrenched as U2’s and as anticipated as Frank Ocean’s.

Burton has hinted at more of a psychedelic, loose direction for the band’s upcoming Turn Blue (the album art perhaps does more than hint), but its title track, released today, is as slick as anything off El Camino, string stabs and rattlesnake hisses and a snarl of a bass synth beneath the Keys’ hazed-over vocals all done with perfectionist precision.

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