Solange creates musical medicine for the soul on long-awaited ‘A Seat at the Table’

Solange Knowles at the From Earth to Heart Event at The W Hotel in December 2015. (Claire Sulmers via Wikimedia Commons)

Solange Knowles at the From Earth to Heart Event at The W Hotel in December 2015. (Claire Sulmers via Wikimedia Commons)

Solange is tired of being silent. Like so many other black artists this year, the 30-year-old singer-songwriter sees the ongoing struggle to define what it means to be black in America, both in regards to the current discussion on police brutality and the larger historical narrative going back decades to the Civil Rights Movement. What makes Solange’s “A Seat at the Table,” released on Sept. 30, stand out is its willingness to ground this discussion within the specific context of what it means to be a black woman in this country. Amidst all of Solange’s personal frustrations and anger, she does something truly inspiring by offering the listeners one simple truth: hope.

Following the album’s surprise announcement three days before its release, Solange took to Twitter to recall that her third studio album was “meant to provoke healing & journey of self-empowerment.” Over the course of 21 post-R&B-inspired tracks, “A Seat at the Table” does just that by providing listeners with insights on how Solange views the struggle of being a black woman in America but also finds great strength despite these challenges.

Solange was always not such a political artist. As the younger sister to the pop icon Beyoncé Knowles, she spent the beginning of her career attempting to define herself and her artistry. This initial period was uneven, at best, but did produce the still-exhilarating EP “True” (2012), which saw Solange challenging pop music conventions and preempting the 1980s-inspired pop trend by nearly two years. Prior to the release of “A Seat at the Table,” almost a decade a had passed since her last full album release, making her decision to create an inherently political body of work largely with R&B producer Raphael Saadiq all that more impactful.

“Rise” opens “A Seat at the Table” and was previously premiered at a show in Los Angeles last year, during which she declared the track was “for Ferguson, for Baltimore.” The slow, jazz-inspired track greets the listener with a proper introduction to the record as she warmly coos, “Fall in your ways, so you can crumble.” Solange’s use of “fall” here is striking because she is telling the listener to take up a stance of activity rather than passivity, instead of being set in their ways, segueing into one’s further engagement with the album.

Following the opener, “Weary” and “Cranes in the Sky” offer two very different perspectives on how to confront melancholy. The former is a downtempo, woozy track that sees Solange counseling the listener, “Be leery ’bout your place in the world / You’re feeling like you’re chasing the world.” The latter denies this sorrow by presenting a flat-out denial in the form of this uptempo gem sprinkled with eerie lyrics such as “I slept it away, I sexed it away” and Solange’s delicate falsetto towards the track’s end.

It is Solange’s portrayal of anger, however, that truly shows the mastery in her art. “Mad,” just like the title says, is an outraged anthem that unpacks the “angry black girl” stereotype to great effect. Working with hip-hop veteran Lil Wayne once more, Solange’s voice never goes above a whisper, yet when she sings “I got a lot to be mad about (Be mad, be mad, be mad),” one can understand her deep-seated frustrations with regard to the isolation and objectification that afflicts her.

Similarly, “Don’t Touch my Hair,” featuring a groovy baseline courtesy of British electronic musician Sampha, continues to see Solange pushing angrily back against microaggressions with her defiant declaration that “You know this hair is my sh*t / Rode the ride, I gave it time / But this here is mine.” By seeking to reclaim the physical aspects of her body that others would seek to infringe upon, Solange is marking her hair as a site of contestation, and she will not be limited in her unfettered expression of it. In other words, “Don’t touch my pride / They say the glory’s all mine.”

While the technical quality of “A Seat at the Table” is beyond superb, it is worth highlighting the numerous 90s-esque interludes scattered throughout the record as they offer an emotional authenticity to the stories Solange sings about. Whether it’s when her father Mathew recounts his experience with desegregation busing and the KKK on “Interlude: Dad Was Mad” or when her mother Tina marvels at the beauty of being black on “Tina Taught Me,” these brief anecdotes coax out the most soulful elements of the record, demonstrating that the best kind of music comes from the heart and that the heart is just where Solange is singing from.

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