Thursday, October 6, 2016

album review: 'a seat at the table' by solange

I wasn't planning on reviewing this album.

Part of this was my schedule - my stack of albums to cover over the next few weeks has reached a frankly staggering height, and there are records I've had to cross off my list purely out of necessity or delay until the very end of the year where I typically do some catch-up. And even then, there were going to be albums on which I was generally ambivalent or didn't show the sort of evolution to make a review worthwhile that I'd probably set aside.

And for the most part I was intending to do this for the newest record from Solange Knowles, the younger sister of Beyonce and an artist for whom I've been pretty lukewarm at best. Part of this is historical context: her debut album Solo Star in 2002 was a slice of underwhelming hip-hop-inspired R&B in an era where that was the norm, and when she followed it in 2008 with a generally tasteful retro-throwback record on Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams... well, it was definitely good, but it wasn't a record that I often felt inclined to revisit. It was pleasant enough, the lyrics were interesting, and I appreciated that Solange was generally making more subtle and listenable music than her sister was in the 2000s, but I was never gripped by it. I don't think she was helped by Janelle Monae coming in a few years later with a similar vocal style and yet more impressive production, writing, ideas, and charisma across the board. And from there... well, I didn't really hear much from her.

But it became very clear that just because I wasn't listening doesn't mean Solange wasn't working on projects, first with an EP cowritten with Dev Hynes in 2012, and now this, which has won over volumes of critical acclaim from some unexpected sources and spurred a tidal wave of requests. And hey, eight years is a pretty impressive distance between records and if this record was socially conscious and potent as suggested, it could make for a powerful listen. So I decided to check out A Seat At The Table - what did we get?

This is the sort of record where there is no easy way for me to talk about it. It's certainly an album that made me think a lot about the concepts and ideas behind it, particularly how they're presented with respect to Solange's audience - partially because she's so acutely aware of that audience and partially because of the subject matter this record is exploring. I'm also very much aware, right out of the gate, that more than any other Solange project this is not 'meant for me' - and I'm not going to disparage her for that. But as such when I say for me this record is very good but not great, there's two qualification I'm making: one, it doesn't have anything to do with the themes and writing of this record, most of which I can entirely support; and two, the audience for whom this record is intended will probably adore it and there's no denying A Seat At The Table probably speaks to them on a much deeper level than it does me.

So to add some context to all that, we're going to switch things up and start with the lyrics and themes first - and let's get the inevitable Beyonce side of things out of the way first, but A Seat At The Table is an interesting inversion of the thematic focus Beyonce took on Lemonade. Where Lemonade at its core was a relationship drama interspersed with a potent social narrative about black women, Solange takes places the social narrative front and center, peppering the album with some well-spoken connecting interludes from Master P and with the only real guest verses coming from Lil Wayne sounding more on point than he has in years on 'Mad' and a dualistic verse from BJ The Chicago Kid and The-Dream for 'F.U.B.U.' which is a great addition to an already great song. And that thematic focus is to explore 'healing and self-empowerment' - by black women, for black women, reclaiming a certain inner peace and control against a world that would ignore, erase, and marginalize them. It's very much analogous to themes that Jamila Woods approached this year on HEAVN - and they both used the same Paula Cole interpolation from Dawson's Creek, which I thought was nifty - but Solange is a much more straightforward writer, and arguably cuts to sharper insight. Originally I was kind of thrown off by 'Mad' and how she approached the song with more tiredness than anything else, but it makes sense as she tells the friend questioning her anger she's done taking the impetus to explain things - she has the right to be angry and damn the stereotype, but she just can't at this point. 

And that's consistent across the record - while there are songs like 'Don't Touch My Hair' which digs into that particular microaggression - the larger theme isn't so much escape but moving on, and not caring if she leaves a white audience that might have loved TRUE but doesn't get this record behind. As songs like 'Don't You Wait' indicate, she's done with sweet nothings and she's not obliged to keep feeding white culture easy music. Similar thing in 'F.U.B.U.' - when the culture ignores or marginalizes them for so long and they're tempted to either react with aggression or pleas for acceptance, the third path Solange takes is to carve out her own lane - don't feel bad if you can't sing along, white people, you've got the world in front of you anyway! And between that song and the Andre 3000 contributions on the excellent 'Junie' about cultural appropriation and the interlude 'Tina Taught Me' from Solange's mother speaking about how black positivity isn't reverse racism and 'Don't Wish Me Well', she makes it clear she's not against white culture enjoying or embracing her music... but you're not going to be the primary focus anymore. And while I've covered records that have touched on this or conveyed it in subtext in the past, this is probably the first album where it came across acutely - and there's nothing wrong with it either. Hell, it's probably the closest I'll ever get to feeling like how black audiences feel when culture ignores them entirely - it's discombobulating, but I don't mind being on the outside looking in and making the effort to understand...

And I just wish I could connect with the music more! Part of this is Solange herself - yes, her singing is beautiful and organic and a lot of the multi-tracking is really pretty but I'm not grabbed by her charisma as much as I'd like to be, mostly because this record is much more reliant on its content for its edge rather than the performances. The sharpest edges come through in some of the production - sharper snares crop up on the self-acceptance of vulnerability on 'Rise' or against the cello and constant search for escape from impenetrable iron clouds on 'Cranes In The Sky', or the sandy yet blocky beat on 'Mad' or against the 'Benny & The Jets' interpolation on 'Where Do We Go'. And then we get synths with more of an edge against the 80s-esque bass and atmosphere of 'Don't You Wait' that cuts in again on the funk touches of  'Junie' and the sharper electronic keys on 'Don't Wish Me Well'. And really, a lot of the piano lines are pretty as well, especially on songs like 'F.U.B.U.' and 'Where Do We Go', or the fluttery keys on 'Borderline: An Ode To Self Care'. I can't say I'm always wild about the interplay between synths and more organic instrumentation here, though, especially with that odd beeping added to 'Weary', or that wiry synth added to 'Don't Touch My Hair'. The larger issue is that this record, while it runs under an hour definitely feels longer, and you can get the impression that a tighter edit might have intensified the impact of some of these themes. And the placement of songs like 'Scales' - probably the weakest track here, even despite the sweet interplay betweeen Solange and Kelela - near the very end of the record does not help this album maintain momentum and ends things on an oddly downbeat note, even beyond Master P's triumphant closer. And on that note, even though I really do like Master P's interludes for their content, they don't exactly help the momentum on a record that plays to a very meditative, languid pace.

But then again, I can almost guarantee the main audience for this record won't care about the pace or the atmosphere, and again, that's fine - this is an album that establishes Solange doesn't remotely care what I or anyone else thinks of her musical direction - which, again, for the most part I actually like. This is a thought-provoking, very well-produced album that can feel a little bloated and slow at points but overall does show a creative direction that breathes originality and poise into Solange's career going forward, knowledgeable and reflective of the past but forward looking. As such, for me it's a very strong 7/10, but I absolutely recommend it, especially for white audiences who could use a perspective shakeup. Because if you find this a culture shock... well, it might be one long in coming, and Solange is moving on regardless. If you want to keep following some fascinating and pretty damn good music, I recommend you keep up.

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