£19.99 LP&DL CODE
Solange’s new record is stunning, a thematically unified and musically adventurous statement on the pain and joy of black womanhood.
Solange Knowles turned 30 in June, and it seems clear that her Saturn Returns manifested in an artistic surge. A Seat at the Table, her third full-length album, is the work of a woman who’s truly grown into herself, and discovered within a clear, exhilarating statement of self and community that’s as robust in its quieter moments as it is in its funkier ones. Even though it’s been out less than a week, it already seems like a document of historical significance, not just for its formidable musical achievements but for the way it encapsulates black cultural and social history with such richness, generosity, and truth.
To this point, Solange has been trying on styles and stretching out into her own skills as a songwriter. Having spent her early teen years singing backup and writing songs, she debuted as a solo artist at just 16, with Solo Star. Very 2003, it was a gleaming, hip-hop-informed album that slinked over beats from the likes of Timbaland and the Neptunes; even with plenty of great tracks, the production outweighed her presence. After a five-year break as a solo artist—during which she got married, had son Julez, moved to Idaho, got divorced, starred in Bring It On: All or Nothing, among other films, and wrote songs for her sister Beyoncé (whew!)—she returned in 2008 with Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams. That album was clearly immersed in a deep love of ’60s funk and soul and its attendant politics, and she rebelled against expectations (see: “Fuck the Industry”), eager to fully express her individuality. She fused her musical impulses in the easy, ebullient grooves of 2012’s True EP, which eased a glossier vision of pop into the soulfunk groove she had ingrained.
Even with such an impressive resume, though, A Seat at the Table is on a different plane. It’s a document of the struggle of a black woman, and black women, in 2016, as Solange confronts painful indignities and situates them historically. Many of these songs draw from current reactions to the seemingly unending killing of black women and men at the hands of the police, but the scope of the record as a whole is much larger than that, with Civil Rights hymnals encompassing centuries of horror black Americans have been subject to, including that inflicted on Knowles’ own ancestors. But even when Solange offers her narrative in first-person and incorporates her family’s past through interludes with her mother Tina and father Mathew, she does so with such artistic and emotional openness that this album feels like nothing but a salve.
The quick sketch “Rise” opens slowly, on a sweet piano and with layers of Solange’s voice in jazz modulations, as a sort of blessing and a placid encouragement to thrive despite it all. “Fall in your ways, so you can crumble,” she sings. “Fall in your ways, so you can wake up and rise.” The word “rise” lands on the high note, but the song lays out the album’s central tension between pain, pride, sorrow, and fierce dignity. This leads directly into “Weary,” a ginger, breathy document of exhaustion, and the deceptively euphoric “Cranes in the Sky,” which, taken as a “Weary”’s counterpart, illustrates two stages of sorrow. What’s so touching about “Cranes,” though—intertwined with the airy, peaceful beauty of its video—is the way Solange specifically documents her process of coping, down to the smallest escape mechanisms. On a warm bass strut, she sings about drinking, sexing, running, and spending in an effort to be free from “those metal clouds,” making visible the kinds of mundane things we all do in the service of a temporary reprieve. Naming these actions feels radical in and of itself, but by the time she flies off her own cloud of a Minnie Riperton-level aria, she seems to have freed herself from the routine, and transcended it.
Solange has said that it was important to her to articulate her roots, and so along with the recordings of her parents, she made the bulk ofA Seat at the Table in New Iberia, Louisiana, “based on that area being the start of everything within our family’s lineage,” the place where Tina Knowles-Lawson’s parents first met and then fled after being “run out of town.” In terms of production, her song structures, and melodies, she celebrates the whole history of black music. But the result is never derivative; when you recognize the spirits of artists like Riperton, Zapp, Angie Stone, Aaliyah (lyrically, in “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care”), Janet Jackson, Stanley Clarke, Lil Mo, Herbie freakin’ Hancock and so many more, it feels more like a musical nod or a wink.
The master musician and bandleader Raphael Saadiq serves as co-producer; Saadiq meets Solange in the juiciest middle, both bridging their instincts between classic instrumentation and futuristic funk. The arrangements are voluminous, loose and tight at once, but Solange’s voice is always at the front of this proscenium; each shows restraint as they lean into her collective vision. The sound they conjure is chill-inducing, an easy sound for subject matter that’s as real and tough as it gets. The excellent “Don’t Touch My Hair” (with a feature by Sampha) and “Mad” (her second collaboration with Lil Wayne) specifically address the way black women are devalued, and the songs meet that with resistance. Solange’s voice is a palliative for the pain she describes, as she names truths to divest them of their power.
A Seat at the Table offers a hearth to black women as much as it asserts Solange’s right to comfort and understanding. And in terms of her lived experience, the table of the album’s title, metaphysical and physical, rests in her home of New Orleans. In several interludes, the rapper, label head, and entrepreneur Master P threads the album with musings on No Limit’s runaway success as a black-owned record label (landed him on the Forbes list, baby). That particular segment leads into “F.U.B.U.” (“For Us, By Us”), a honey-dripped slow-grinder of black affirmation, with tubas that sound inspired by NOLA’s Second Lines as Solange mews, “This shit is for us/Don’t try to come for us.” Her sumptuous harmonies build a protective forcefield: “Some shit,” she sings, “you can’t touch.”
A Seat at the Table’s nature is beneficent, but at its spiritual core it is an ode to black women and their healing and sustenance in particular; in writing about herself, Solange turns the mirror back upon them, and crystallizes the kinship therein. She harmonizes with Kelly Rowland and Nia Andrews that “I got so much magic, you can have it,” but the song that perhaps best encapsulates this outstanding work is “Scales,” a slow-burning duet with Kelela near the end of the album. Their harmonies are heavenly and create almost a meditative effect, a mantra of healing kindness in a syrup-slow synth progression. It’s a sex jam, I think, but it can also serve as a shine-theory jam. “You’re a superstar,” they sing together, letting the “star” part roll around a bit in the lower part of the vibrato. “You’re a superstar.”