In early 2013, Solange Knowles rallied against bloggers who write about R&B without understanding its culture. As Beyoncé’s younger sister, one who combined pop with unconventional soul years before Frank Ocean, she’s in a unique position to school dilettantes. That’s exactly the purpose of her recently established Saint Records, which gets its official start with this emphatically dreamy Knowles-curated compilation.
Unlike many label samplers, Saint Heron is so of a piece that casual listeners could be forgiven for thinking that it was been masterminded by one collective or producer, like Massive Attack or an alternative-universe Timbaland. Spacey synths dominate, and although they’re typically joined by syncopated beats, most rhythms are muted, with results that often suggest Aaliyah jamming in the afterworld with a gently funky Boards of Canada.
BC Kingdom’s “Lockup,” leads the batch, as if Knowles knew that she needed to bait the line with a familiarly whispery Prince student to get everyone’s attention. But aside from Sampha, a buttery-voiced London singer who’s appeared on various Jessie Ware, SBTRKT and Drake tracks, most of the other voices are female. With its “Runnin’, runnin’” refrain, Jaded J’s “Jaded” brings to mind Ware’s “Running,” while plusher tracks by India Shawn and Jhene Aiko evoke the “deep Brandy album cuts” Solange alluded to in her Twitter screed. Cassie, who had a platinum single, “Me & U,” back in ’06, gets a little love directly from Knowles, who writes and produces Cassie’s smoky “Indo,” and closes the show with her own stately “Cash In.”
Between BC Kingdom and Knowles, the foggy, crepuscular atmosphere gets heavier than the hooks, and that’s cool: This is R&B abstracted to the point that it’s nearly ambient. These blue-but-not-bluesy results are far more concerned with tickling your earbuds than with shaking your booty or saving your soul.