Solange Knowles has a background in overcoming unexpected obstacles. In 2004, the soul chanteuse -- familiar to most who've heard her name as the younger sister of Beyoncé Knowles -- married football player Daniel Smith when she was only 17. Later that year, she gave birth to a son, and soon the family moved to tiny Moscow, Idaho, while Smith attended college.
"We were probably the only black people there other than those on the football and basketball teams," Knowles says now, seated at a table in the restaurant of the Regent Beverly Wilshire. "There was no sense of diversity or culture."
Although her marriage ended just two years later, she made the most of her time in Idaho "focusing on being a mom" and writing songs for other acts, including all three members of Beyoncé's group Destiny's Child. This week, with the release of her sophomore album, "Sol-Angel and the Hadley Street Dreams," Knowles, 22, is making public her creative response to that turbulent period.
Her goal, Knowles says, was to fashion "a mix of stuff from the '60s and '70s with electronics," an aspiration reflected in the album's lead single, "I Decided," a Supremes-style girl-group number, and "This Bird," in which Knowles croons seductively over a sample of a track by the Scottish techno duo Boards of Canada. In total, "Sol-Angel" is an appealingly freewheeling set of lightly psychedelic soul music that shares the retro-futuristic vibe of Gnarls Barkley -- not surprising considering that that band's Cee-Lo Green worked closely with Knowles on the record.
In addition to Green, the disc features production by the Neptunes, Mark Ronson and Jack Splash, a songwriting assist from the veteran Motown tunesmith Lamont Dozier and guest appearances by Bilal and Q-Tip.
"Her individualism and her honesty are what drew me to it," says Q-Tip. "She's very much her own person, and she sticks to her guns. When I heard what she had done, I was calling people like, 'Yo, you gotta hear this.' "
Knowles' sister might be one of the biggest stars in the pop universe, but she says that it was difficult to access those A-list connections. To recruit Green, for example, Knowles turned to her friend LaLa Vazquez, a former host of MTV's "Total Request Live," who happened to be staying at the Le Parc Suite Hotel in West Hollywood at the same time as Green.
Vazquez called Knowles and told her to come to the hotel right away. "So I loaded some tracks onto my iPod and we all went out," Knowles remembers.
Between dances at a club, she talked up her in-progress album and persuaded Green to take a trip to the roof for a listen. "He was totally quiet, and I was like, 'Oh, he thinks [it's awful].' But when it was over he told his manager, 'Make this happen now.' A week later, he flew down to Miami and we recorded 'T.O.N.Y.' "
Despite the impressive guest stars, Knowles says that the new record "is all me. It's my stories and my choice of producers and writers." That distinguishes the new collection from her lackluster debut, "Solo Star," which since its release in 2003 has sold only 112,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
"I forget that I had a first record until people bring it up," Knowles admits with a laugh. "I was 15 when I started working on it. I wanted to do a reggae album, and that came through in three or four songs. But I also had a Linda Perry rock song, an Aaliyah-esque Timbaland song and a Britney-sounding Neptunes song."
She pins the stylistic schizophrenia on Columbia, her label at the time, but says she can't blame the executives who objected to her original vision. "At 15, saying I wanted to do a reggae album after growing up in a snazzy house in Houston -- it was kind of random."
She completed "Sol-Angel" before shopping it to labels, determined to protect its willfully offbeat quality from any orders to make the music more radio-friendly. Geffen Records agreed to release the album through a partnership with Knowles' father Mathew's Music World Entertainment.
Geffen President Ron Fair says that building an audience for "Sol-Angel" "may be a long walk," but he's up for the challenge. "I think 'I Decided' is an important record, a Grammy record. And as a live performer she's spectacular -- you can't hate on it."
Fair compares Knowles' potential to that of M.I.A., the hipster-beloved singer-rapper whose "Paper Planes" has ascended the singles chart in recent weeks, thanks to its inclusion in the trailer for “ Pineapple Express.”
That comparison satisfies Knowles, who says that the crossover success of hard-to-classify songs like Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" proves that there are plenty of consumers hungry for "good music" regardless of its genre.
Pointing to recent dance-flavored singles by Ne-Yo and Chris Brown, Emmanuel Coquia, music director at L.A. radio's Power 106 FM, notes that the current moment is a good one for "artists wanting to try something a little different." Still, he hasn't added "I Decided" to the station's playlist.
Knowles is less concerned with that, though, than she is with persuading her handlers to stay the unconventional course. "They have to understand that I wouldn't do the same kind of stuff the Pussycat Dolls would," she says.
Or perhaps the same kind of stuff her sister would do? "Absolutely," Knowles replies. "My interests are so different from hers."
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