People have a natural tendency to compare. Comparisons (usually to our own detriment) help us gauge where we fit in society—if we’re doing well or if we’re not. They help us understand what we like, “I prefer the red to the blue.” And they sometimes help us understand the unfamiliar. Maybe that’s why so many people can’t help but compare Solange to her sister Beyoncé. She’s not familiar and we can’t quite figure out where to peg her.
In recent years, she’s won the hearts of the fashion world, the natural hair community and is finding her niche in the indie music scene. Her path hasn’t been the omg-my-song-is-playing-on-the-radio-cut-to-super-stardom path. It’s been a trial and error path, a doors-are-closed-take-a-window path, an I’m-going-to-do-this-my-way path. And to our good fortune, her unconventional path has resulted in a self-expression that’s far from cookie cutter.
2003: Solo Star
Solange didn’t start out a style star. Like her first album, her style wasn’t anything that stood out in a crowd. At age 16 she graced her “Solo Star” album cover with multi-colored curly microbraids, showing an early tendency to experiment and mix.
2004: Love & Juelz
In 2004, at the age of 17, Solange married her high school sweet heart, donning long red waves at a beach side ceremony. That same year, the then Mrs. Knowles Smith gave birth to her first born, Juelz, after making an appearance in the Destiny’s Child “Soldier” music video. The social judgment of a teenage pregnancy, coupled with the challenge and reward of motherhood must have done a lot to shape and strengthen the young star. Six years later, in a song titled “F**k the Industry Signed Sincerely”, she would write: I can do anything / I remember the Doc saying, “What you gon’ do? Girl, you 17.
2008: Sprouting Wings
In 2008, with the release of her second album, “Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams,” and with five years of life experience under her belt the song bird went curly and invoked 1960s/70s Motown.
She spoke to Sister2Sister Magazine saying:
I think, definitely, this record portrays my life. This is the first piece of creative art by me that [shows] I am a woman and I’ve gone through things that women do, and I’ve gone through real life situations that don’t involve dancing and partying and dating: “Boy, I like you. Do you like me too? I’m feeling you.” [laughs] So I definitely think that’s portrayed through the record.”
It’s at this time we see Solange really start to take command of her music and her style. In the same interview she said:
I’ve always wanted to do a record that was organic for me, and that was my dream from day one, but I didn’t know how to go about doing it. I was always scared. I always had pressure from the label or from people to create a certain kind of persona. But with this record, I went to Hadley Street—which is the studio—one day and I wrote this song called “Heartbreak” after a friend of mine passed away when I was 17. Then that next week I found out I was pregnant. I went to the studio and I just started freestyling with a jazz band, which was very new for me, and I came up with a great record and it made me feel things in music that I had never felt before. And it was on that street. So that had a very powerful meaning for me and that’s what opened up the doors for me to say that I wanted to do another record.
2010: The Fashionistas Catch Wind
In 2008 Knowles had been named ambassador of Giorgio Armani’s younger diffusion line, Armani Jeans. But it wasn’t until 2010 that the Fashion world really took notice. More coverage of Solange and her style started to creep up on NY Magazine and Rimmel London made her their spokeswoman. In one of her early ads for the brand, Solange sported a sleek short do.
During this time she jumped between two extremes–micro short natural curls and mega long braids.
2012: Natural Hair Police Brutality
By early 2012 Solange was a bonafide style star, with even Vogue knocking at her door. The It Girl sported a fro of varying sizes, switching between her natural locks and an afro wig, which later that year would make headlines upon being searched by the TSA. Solange unwittingly also became a muse for the rapidly growing, ever-engaged natural hair community. But great hair influence comes with great hair responsibility. Not feeling as fervent as some in the community about her hair, Solange took to Twitter to express the unimportance of her hair after being criticized.
Later in an interview with Lurve magazine she reflected on the moment saying:
I really, truly was not even aware that there was a natural hair system in place to measure the texture of your hair. At that point I thought to myself, ‘This is really crazy. That these people know more about my hair than the human that even carries it!’ I went to my Twitter and sort of impulsively expressed that. I don’t regret it one bit, but sometimes trying to put how you feel in an one-hundred forty character structure is not really successful. […] I’m actually really trying to navigate my feelings on the entire hair issue and it’s tough doing that publicly.
Late 2012/Early 2013: Taking Flight
Throughout her career, Solange has refused to be boxed into what the world expects of her. She wouldn’t allow it with hair, let alone her music. So it wasn’t surprising to find her releasing her third album “True” through an independent label. Her recent Fader interview explained:
Thanks to sidelines in D.J.’ing and songwriting (she co-wrote her sister’s 2007 single “Get Me Bodied”), and savings from her teenage gig as a Destiny’s Child backup dancer, she could afford to go it alone. “I made my entire record on my own from top to bottom,” she says. “Everything from studio-equipment rentals to actually creating a studio.” The DIY approach befits her music, which shares some DNA with Beyoncé’s radio-friendly R&B but takes just as many cues from indie rock and eighties synth-pop. “True” will be distributed by Terrible Records, a tiny label co-run by her friend Chris Taylor, bassist for Grizzly Bear.
She released the album’s first single in September 2012, much to the pleasure of cool kids everywhere, who took to the 80s influenced tune like hipsters take to Wayfarers. In the video she stuck with her afro wig and the print mixing that she’s become known for. So far, in 2013 we’ve seen her mainly rock her large-and-in-charge fro, adding a little bit of a bang to it as well as her own natural petite fro.
There’s no better way to sum up Solange’s style and career than with her own words:
I’m not a goody-goody, so I don’t watch my mouth like I’m a goody-goody / But I appreciate the ones who rooting for me… /Big up haters, if you don’t like it, I didn’t make it for you ooh, ooh… / I’m not apologetic, if you don’t like it, it’s probably ’cause you don’t get it… And you can tell the world that you heard I said it… / And I ain’t talking about me, I’m talking ’bout the ones who represent what I believe / The fresh kids, the what comes next kids / The see you at the art exhibit, oh, hell yes kid/ … The I don’t care what the next man is saying / I’m just saying to the industry, this is f**k you, signed sincerely.