How Janelle Monáe discovered R&B duo St. Beauty in a store basement

Alex Belle and Isis Valentino, who perform together as the neo-soul act St. Beauty, met five years ago while working at a vintage clothing shop in Atlanta’s College Park neighborhood. Using what was at their disposal, Belle, 23, and Valentino, 26, began putting on DIY shows in the store’s basement. In a turn of good fortune, one of them was attended by Janelle Monáe, who soon after invited the pair into her collective of emerging artists and signed them to her Wondaland record label. “Atlanta has always been a hub for creative people of color,” Valentino says of the supportive local scene. “We love 808s, we love hip-hop and all of that, but we wanted to add St. Beauty to it.”

The duo garnered wider attention in 2015 for their contribution to Wondaland Presents: The Eephus, a compilation featuring artists signed to the label (including breakout star Jidenna), and last year two of their songs were used in Issa Rae’s hit HBO series Insecure. Their debut EP, Running to the Sun, due to be released in January, is a showcase of their hard work and vision, as well as an emotionally honest portrait of the two women. “We were both going through relationship issues, getting out of those relationships, going through withdrawals, and we also had some insecurities that we were dealing with,” says Belle. “But we realized those were things most women go through and that we aren’t alone. All of that helped us write this project.”

Electro beats ground the record’s R&B tracks as Belle’s and Valentino’s vocals—at times ethereal, at times powerfully soulful—capture the drama of modern romance, as on the single “Caught”: “He was the coolest I ever known / He did me dirty so I let him go / Now everything is all right / After I said goodbye / He was getting way too comfortable / Now I’m taking back all my control.” About the album’s lyrics, Valentino says, “We talk about the struggle. We want people to trust us with their emotions and be able to relate.”