Words by Josh Fernandez
Solange recently released her stunning and potent album A Seat at the Table on September 30 this year. Some time has passed and I have had amassed a multitude of listens since and have gathered my thoughts on this astounding record. It has been four years since we have heard a release from Solange with her True EP, and over eight (!) years since she has released a studio album. Her sophomore studio LP, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, was released back in August of 2008. Since then, Knowles has been fine-tuning her sound and direction, and everything is working for the R&B artist.
The creative process and timeline of the album in the making started as soon as Solange’s last LP was released. The main example would be “Cranes in the Sky,” which was written in 2008. As far as the recording of the album, Solange began her process of developing her songs and putting the tracks down in 2013 under Saint Records, the record label she founded that year. Put out on her VEVO Youtube channel, she gave us a look into the beginning stages and jam sessions that would eventually culminate in the production of ASATT. The video, which is filmed in Long Island, New Orleans, and New Iberia, features Knowles working with Sampha, Patrick Wimberly of Chairlift, and many others.
The album opens with the capturing and almost meditative track “Rise,” offering a message of staying true to one’s self. Just a mere 90 seconds, the record sets an amazing tone with Questlove on the simple, yet head nodding, drums. This intro leads into the track “Weary.” In the second number, Knowles communicates that she is “weary of the ways of the world.” This is the foreshadowing of the pain and stresses to come in the upcoming tracks, but she is staying strong and taking care of herself. The layered vocal tracks fill the room and immerse the listener into the song.
Pain. Pain is present in the stunning track “Cranes in the Sky,” which incorporates Solange’s graceful vocals over a serene instrumental with a nice drum loop, grooving baseline, and constant strings filling space in the back. Knowles seeks distractions in efforts to avoid the pain brought onto her as a black woman in America. Her attempts to alleviate this pain include drinking, crying, buying material possessions, running away, and changing her look; however, none of which end up diverting her troubles. The shadows of the metal cranes can also portray a personified pain, as well as the sight of literal cranes and construction in gentrified neighborhoods. This track even received two unofficial remixes. One was by Kaytranada who “couldn’t help it” and gives the track a nice DJ house edit. The other remix was put out by Common, who added a smooth verse and said that was “inspired by the art of love.” A quote by essayist James Baldwin best relates to the track, “Mad.”
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
Knowles asserts she has “a lot to be mad about” while Lil Wayne has “a lot to pop a xan about.” In the pre-hook, she under the persona of her opposers who fuss and question her failure to accept the way things are. She then argues that she has a right to be mad as she and others are reacting to the injustice faced by those in her community. The hook on this track is incredibly entrancing as Solange sings repeatedly, “where’d your love go?” Wayne comes in on message with the number and delves into his loneliness, people using him, and his past suicide attempt. As Solange states in the outro: she is tired of explaining. She is drained and is not actually allowed to be mad, societally speaking. Black people expressing anger is not socially acceptable. With the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype that implies her anger comes as a consequence of her culture and not because she has a sensible reason to be upset. Whenever a black woman conveys her anger she is often viewed as carrying out this stereotype.
On “Don’t Touch My Hair,” Solange expresses a frustration with the micro-aggression of, well, strangers touching her/black women’s hair without regard for the woman as a person with agency over her body and hair. The title could also have different interpretations from an explicit rejection of this behavior, a straightforward establishment of boundaries, or a powerful pledge of personal identity. After all, it is her “crown” and part of who she is. As I have written plenty of times (and said on Stay Sweet), the track features a small and minimalistic contribution with the chorus: “what you say to me? What you say to me?” This post-hook section may seem fun and light, but the question is intended for those who ask and say offensive and impolite questions and comments. Though the track seems to be slower, this post-hook manages to get me bobbing and jamming just like Solange and Sampha in the music video.
For us, by us. “F.U.B.U.,” which features BJ the Chicago Kid and The-Dream, focuses on black empowerment and expression. The title itself comes from the American clothing company FUBU, which was close-knit to the hip-hop community. The name meant “For Us, By Us” with the “Us” being the African American community. Throughout the track, Solange uses the n-word in an infectious melody and even references the use towards the end of the track singing “don’t feel bad if you can’t sing along/just be glad you got the whole wide world/this us.” She makes this distinction very clear and it stays with the topic of F.U.B.U.: that this, this track, is for “us,” the black community and solely the black community.
On “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care),” Solange gives insight on the way to balance one’s action with the world’s struggles and self-preservation. Q-Tip is featured on the track with his contribution of backup vocals along with the production and instrumentation of the song. As stated by Knowles, the song itself, which sounds fairly hopeful, is about momentarily ignoring the excessive police brutality against black people in the U.S. in attempts to stay sane. “Junie” is one of the few upbeat numbers from ASATT and adds a minuscule contribution by Andre 3000 that just gives the track some more of that old school feel; “jump on it.” The bouncy track is inspired and a nod to Junie Morrison of the Ohio Players and Parliament-Funkadelic.
There are several interludes in between many of the tracks, of which Solange’s parents, Tina Lawson and Mathew Knowles, and Master P have cuts of conversations incorporated. The lyrics on the tracks are dynamic and strong, but may be overlooked due to the delicate tone of Solange’s vocals or the lush production throughout the album. For this reason, the interludes work well in displaying the issues and topics plainly and in spoken word.
On “Interlude: Dad Was Mad,” her father Mathew describes the racism that he experienced growing up in Alabama. Incidents such as parents spitting on him, food being thrown at him, being hosed down, and more were the reason Mathew states he was “angry for years.” Her mother, Tina, breaks down black pride in “Interlude: Tina Taught Me.” She expresses her love for her culture and heritage and that having black pride does not equate to being anti-white. Master P narrates many of the other interludes on the 21-track album, which are all in conversation form regarding issues and topics include such as perseverance, self-belief, self-care, and being the “chosen ones.”
The behind-the-scenes action on the album is a whole other element in its self. Old school R&B and soul/neo soul artist, Raphael Saadiq appears all over Solange’s album on the production side as well as devoting several writing credits. “Don’t Touch My Hair” feature, Sampha Sisay, also contributes production and writing credits to multiple tracks on ASATT. Sonically, the album works well together with a mix of R&B, soul, funk, and electronic elements and instrumentals. The blissful beats and production offer a sturdy backbone to the lyrics and vocals, which are often heavy and incorporate serious topics.
A Seat at the Table is a smooth, elegant, and powerful work of art that comprises emotions of frustration, care, and pride. It combines silk-like production and vocals with important, meaningful lyrics. The focus on healing and the journey of self-empowerment carries the album’s message straight to the listener with compelling lyrics and interludes. This record, as an ode to black women and their healing, completely hits its mark and is a soft-spoken but strong work that will stay at the top of the ranks as one of the best albums of the year in my opinion. Do not be surprised if you see ASATT amass several honors this music award cycle.
“Don’t Touch My Hair,” “F.U.B.U.,” “Cranes,” “Rise,” & “Mad”