Solange Knowles has long been one of the more interesting figures working on the fringes of mainstream music, with each of her albums reflecting a discrete creative phase. Her Top 40–leaning 2003 debut, Solo Star, fell in the sizable shadow of her big sister Beyoncé, but her second act, 2008’s Sol-Angel and the Hadley Street Dreams, was bright, inventive pop-soul that announced Solange as an unexpected sonic visionary. She sharpened her cool-kid cred with the 2012 EP True, anchored by the tense alt-dance single “Losing You.” Along the way she launched her own record label, Saint Records, and collaborated with indie-rock acts such as Grizzly Bear and Of Montreal. Unburdened by genre parameters or commercial expectations, her music has soared.
Her new album, A Seat at the Table, released on Sept. 30, feels unexpectedly airy given the weight of the subject matter: race, gender and identity. The arrangements are luxuriously smooth and languid. Traditional songs are pieced together with interludes that feature snatches of melody and dialogue including, memorably, her mother Tina speaking on the beauty of black people. Solange’s lyrics are direct and pointed on the tender “Don’t Touch My Hair” and the jazzy, funky “F.U.B.U.,” which shifts effortlessly from joy to resignation. On the stunning “Cranes in the Sky” and the lush “Don’t Wish Me Well,” her voice is piercingly sweet and lovely, ensuring that this ambitious material is also always pleasurable. It’s to her credit that Solange makes such a complex balancing act feel effortless.
This appears in the October 17, 2016 issue of TIME.