Beyonce and Solange Knowles are one of the great music stories of 2016.
Two sisters as solo artists releasing number one albums in the one year is impressive enough. It’s never happened before – and before you ask, no, not even the Minogues. And it’s never happened to two brothers either - no, you don’t need to ask, it certainly didn’t happen to the Gallaghers after Oasis.
But to do it with albums that aren’t just collections of songs but broader, deeper, commentary about black lives and women’s lives. To do it with wholly different sounding music that plays at the edges of many genres and pushes out the boundaries of “regular” pop. To do it with total control - of collaborators, of sound, of image and product - is next level achievement.
In a way, Michael and Janet Jackson nearly did it, 20 years ago: a brother and sister separately making it to number one in a reign of familial pop domination.
In retrospect, the achievement, while significant in some key ways – not least for the siblings being black in the age of whiter-than-white MTV manifesting radio’s long-running segregation – also feels a bit more transient societally and politically.
Neither Jackson were known through most of their careers for having or expressing strong views on sex, race or most other issues, though in many ways they were victims of one or other.
Having broken the TV colour bar, one Jackson would devolve into parody and even infamy for his alleged behaviour with children. The other would pay the price for being a black woman in a manufactured scandal, aka Super Bowl nipplegate, losing her place in the forefront of pop music while her white, male companion in the scene, Justin Timberlake, earned a kind of Trumpian renown and career boost.
Set apart from the brilliantly constructed pop songs, most of their number one albums don’t resonate now with anything like a story of their times, of lives lived.
But Beyonce’s Lemonade, her sixth number one in a row earlier this year, and Solange’s A Seat At The Table, her first number one this week, speak very much of their time, and of two very different women.
Beyonce, five years older and five times bigger in public confidence, has been the wall breaker from the start. The Texas childhood vocal group that began with five singers and took a name change to Destiny’s Child as it was reduced to three, picked up the baton from TLC as confident, striding out, R&B pop stars.
They were not defined by associations with male stars; sold millions; created at least one lasting gem in Say My Name; and even helped out a teenage Solange, on backing vocals, when she began recording.
That Beyonce would emerge as the breakout solo act was obvious from the start, and not just because her parents managed Destiny’s Child. There was always a hunger and ambition there to be not just the next Janet Jackson or Madonna, or Michael Jackson, but the first Beyonce.
She could sing, for sure. She could dance, like few others. And she had little interest in saying anything of importance. That meant she could concentrate on an image of cool sexual control (without ever really singing about sex, beyond the abstract), on physical wonder (a stunning body always displayed, but rarely as passive plaything) and an almost colour-blind appeal from songs that in the hits were smart, insanely catchy and repackaging pop and R&B into the dominant sound of young record buyers at the turn of the century.
Throw in an equally successful spouse, in hip-hop star and mogul Jay-Z, and a pop music conglomerate was established in upper New York. No one was putting Beyonce in the corner.
Meanwhile, Solange, quieter, pliant as the “second sister” when her father directed the making of her first album when she was 14, was taking a different route. Not the dancer, nor the strutter, she was writing songs, including for Destiny’s Child, taking detours to Australia for collaborations with electronic pop producer/writers and doing all the “wrong” things if you want to be a straightforward pop act in a market bent on conformity.
She got married too but it was less successful, but also mercifully less public. She wasn’t searching out the spotlight or demanding the adoration. As she sang at the beginning of her second album, Sol-Angel And The Hadley St. Dreams, “I’m not her and never will be/Two girls gone in different directions/Travelling towards the same galaxy/Let my starlight shine on its own.”
If it looked like there was little in common there, this is where the sisters’ divergent paths begin to align.
That second album was musically more adventurous than just about anyone in R&B, including her safe-treading sibling: ‘70s soul, electronica, pop, country even, were in there. But it was also lyrically adventurous as she put divorce and parenthood and identity at the centre of her writing rather than empty girl power slogans.
A long five years later Beyonce emerged with a new, self-titled, album without fanfare – literally, with no announcement or warning, just an appearance online and in stores – that talked frankly about desire and the physicality of love; about the forces at play in maintaining a relationship. And accompanied it with a full suite of videos.
Some saw it as a love letter to Jay-Z, or at least a steamy mash note. Most of us heard for the first time Beyonce being real, not constructed, and in musical forms that were cognisant of electronica and soul, dance music and liquid pop. An adult woman and a musical explorer.
Then in early 2016, Beyonce’s Lemonade confronted head-on being black, being a woman, being American, being anything but compliant. It brutally deconstructed a relationship foundering on infidelity – some saw it as a kiss-off to Jay-Z – and established a context for independence and strength.
And it mixed rock, country, dancehall and pop into the deep roots of R&B, with poetry and an extended film of striking imagery.
The circle was completed this month by Solange’s A Seat At The Table, a quieter, dreamier set of less tightly constructed songs than had been found on Lemonade. The table in question was the American one but there was no question being asked in these stories of her family and her own life.
Instead, this album was about always having been at, always having the right to, a seat at this table.
That goes for the two of them: black, a woman, in control, at number one. Here, and staying.