The Weeknd's House of Balloons is one of the more influential records of this decade, but thanks to Solange Knowles, “alt-R&B” would have happened without it. The sonic aesthetic she’s pieced together—a crackling experimental streak with potent pop hooks—is deeply pleasurable, and though she hasn't recorded anything as monumental as House of Balloons, people have increasingly taken notice. It's unknown whether or not Solange was attempting to claim the credit she’s owed while curating her Saint Heron compilation, but listening to it, it certainly has that result. Although most of its songs are previously released, she’s assembled them into a coherent piece that transcends the usual odds-and-sods nature of the compilation format. It's an aesthetic manifesto of a specific corner of a rapidly expanding scene—the Flex Your Head or No New York of ambitious, minimalist R&B that possesses considerable mainstream ambition and appeal.
Those loose parameters contain a broad range of sounds and styles. B.C. Kingdom’s album-opening “Lockup” and Kingdom’s “Bank Head” (featuring vocals by Kelela, whose “Go All Night” also appears) both give off a stiffly robotic funkiness—the latter through a juddering bass synth, and the former via the tasteful application of Robocop noises. Sampha’s “Beneath the Tree” is a jazzy piano ballad set to drum programming that combines elements of two-step, footwork, and Burial-style found-sound beats. Jade de la Fleur’s “Jaded” has the brutally stripped-down arrangement and smoky paranoia of a top-tier Tricky song. Spanish producer Pional's remix of South African artist Petit Noir's “Noirse" clears away the comp’s nocturnal moodiness with bright, syncopated staccato melodies passed down from township music.
Despite their different approaches, the tracks all share a few basic commonalities: deep bass unimpeded by fussy arrangements, stoner-friendly electronic textures, and a willingness to borrow from pretty much any musical style that can project stylishly understated sexiness, whether it’s post-dubstep or 4AD-style atmospheric goth. Above all, these songs are also song-focused—the artists assembled here may all have deep experimental streaks, but they never ignore pop’s pleasure principle, and there are hooks all over the place on this near-flawlessly sequenced compilation.
Solange wrote and co-produced her own wryly titled contribution, “Cash In”, and the track's one of the most aesthetically conservative songs on the compilation, featuring a straightforward beat, a relatively lush arrangement, and the kind of gracefully building, inspirational melody that slow-jam R&B hits are made from. It's the one song on Saint Heron that I could see getting radio rotation, a swaggering, graceful power move. It may have taken her a while to get to the point where she can pull such a gesture off, but in this insurgent territory, Solange reigns supreme.
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