Solange was 30 years old when the mournful ‘Cranes in the Sky’ was released. Not old, by any means, but still…it’s a little startling when it hits you how rare is it to hear a modern pop or R&B song with a point of view that belongs to an actual, functioning adult.
Pop music in the social media era is itself something of a social media tributary; it’s kind of a collective timeline with a friend list full of celebrities. The focus is on what you did, where you went, who you went with, and what it all looked like once you got there (and also who you’re sleeping with, who you’ve stopped sleeping with, and who you’d maybe like to start sleeping with). It’s real-life events and emotion filtered through the lens of public wish fulfillment: one part shameless self-mythologizing to two parts pure bullshit. Reality TV set to a soundtrack. (Important caveat: social media did not cause or create these conditions — pop music has always skewed young and superficial — but rather refined its process and distributed its impact across multiple channels.)
‘Cranes in the Sky’, though, is after something altogether different.
Spare and sparse — damn near minimalist by modern R&B standards, punctuated by tactical stabs of piano and floating choral additions — it looks inward instead of outward, proceeding with restraint and dignity. It tells its story simply, in direct and unambiguous language, painting a picture of loss and its leaden, echoing aftermath. The song tells us almost nothing about the loss itself; what it was or how or why it came to be lost. We’re told instead about what’s been left in its wake: silence and empty rooms and moments frozen by grief and regret. It’s a song about an oppressive, unbearable now, unrelieved by drink, sleep, sex, work, or frenetic activity.
Ask any addict: the hard part isn’t kicking the drug. It’s the eternity you’re facing without it that proves the real difficulty.
Michael Strum: “There’s a dreamy quality here that recalls Sigur Ros. Interesting that Solange is the first of the Knowles sisters to make an appearance; I wonder if she’ll hold on for the most-tracks-appearing crown after jumping out to an early lead. Ms. Knowles shows some major league singing chops with some Mariah-type maneuvers. I didn’t catch it the first time through, but there’s some interesting commentary here on how we all attempt to handle massive life stressors, specifically through a woman’s lens. ‘Cranes in the Sky’ has a lovely and delicate composition, with the strings evoking Japanese wagakki, particularly in the outro. Impressive that Ms. Knowles wrote it unassisted and co-produced with R. Saddio.”
Rolling Stone: In an interview with her sister Beyoncé, R&B innovator Solange Knowles described how this song was inspired, in part, by overzealous real estate development she noticed around Miami: “This idea of building up, up, up that was going on in our country at the time, all of this excessive building, and not really dealing with what was in front of us.” She turned the metaphor inward to examine her own feelings about change, self-doubt, and aspiration, finishing the song years after it was originally conceived with producer Raphael Saadiq to create a lavish moment of neo-soul introspection.