Four years ago, Solange Knowles released True, a delightfully dizzy and jittery R&B mini-album. It was an immediate sensation, and the joyous live shows that followed remain very happy memories. But after True, Solange largely went silent, releasing little new music in the ensuing years. As she announced earlier this week, she’d been spending that time working on a new album called A Seat At The Table. It’s out today, and it features contributions from people like Lil Wayne, Kelly Rowland, Q-Tip, Sampha, and Devonté Hynes. The Southern rap legend Master P narrates the album.
A few hours before Solange announced the album, she called me to talk about it. It was a bit of a curious moment for an interview, since I knew absolutely nothing about the new album at the time. But before the interview, Solange sent a list of inspirations, things she referred to while making the album. There’s a lot of music on that list, but she also names artists, books, her father, and the town of New Iberia, Louisiana.
Solange was generous with her time, and we talked for a while about the ways that these different inspirations informed her work. Below, check out her list of inspirations and read our conversation in as you stream the album.
- Rothko’s work at the Menil Museum in Houston
- Lauryn Hill – MTV Unplugged No. 2.0
- The town of New Iberia, Louisiana
- Syreetta Wright – “Black Maybe” (a song that Solange has covered)
- D’Angelo – “Africa“
- Solange’s father Mathew Knowles
- Citizen by Claudia Rankine
- The artist Robert Pruitt
- Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles Blow
- Warren Campbell’s piano and horns on Kanye West’s “We Major”
- Master P and No Limit Records
- Minnie Riperton
- Tweet’s Southern Hummingbird
- The artist Lynette Yiadom Boakim
STEREOGUM: How long have you been working on A Seat At The Table?
SOLANGE: I’ve been working on it for almost four years now, off and on.
STEREOGUM: You’ve sent this list of inspirations for the album, and there are a few themes that run through them. The most obvious and forceful one is the weight of being black in America. Most of the artists whose work you’ve cited are black artists, and most of them deal with things that could be considered imperceptible to white people. Is that something you address on the new album?
SOLANGE: Overall, I set out to make an album about self-discovery and empowerment and independence. The idea of having to fully understand where you’re from — when I say that, I mean it in a variety of ways, not just your history but some of the family heirlooms and traumas that might have been passed down to you, your overall existence — I set out to create a body of work that reflected that. I had a strong yearning for that. And obviously, a huge part of that is my identity as a black woman.
I gravitated towards things in my life — artists, musicians, songs, experiences, places — that really helped me navigate through that self-discovery and articulate those things when I didn’t have the language or the voice. Those are the things I wanted to share through this piece. Some of those artists and people and moments were a voice for me before I had a voice, before I could identify how I could use my voice, or I felt brave enough to use my voice in a way that I have on this album.
STEREOGUM: Are some of those inspirations from your childhood?
SOLANGE: Yes, some of them are. New Iberia, Louisiana is the place where my grandmother’s from. I spent time going to Louisiana a lot as a child, and a huge part of me moving here [to New Orleans] was to create this body of work throughout the process of self-discovery and self-reflection. On one hand, I moved here because it’s an incredible place filled with so much soul and history and magic. But on the other hand, I knew that I needed to move here to complete this chapter in my life.
STEREOGUM: You’re not from Louisiana; is this your first time living there?
SOLANGE: I’m from Houston, and it’s my first time living here. But Houston and New Orleans have a very interesting relationship in that they’re only five hours’ drive from each other. Lots and lots of people, black people especially, migrated from Louisiana and moved to Houston, to my neighborhood. I grew up in a neighborhood called Third Ward that had a really, really strong Louisiana and Creole culture — the restaurants, and there are still some people there who speak Creole. Also, a lot of people go to college here. A lot of people get married here. Birthdays are celebrated here. It’s a very celebratory city for the people of Houston. Obviously, there’s a connection after Hurricane Katrina, in that a lot of New Orleanians moved to Houston. It’s interesting how I’ve had a relationship with New Orleans far before I lived here.
When I trekked down here, my husband was directing a video for a band who were making a video centered around Katrina years ago. I came down with him. My son was with his biological father at the time, and I got to, for the first time, be alone for a long time, to just drift. I felt very at home here, but I also felt a pulling and a yearning. There was a deeper connection here, with my lineage, that I needed to understand better, clearer, as I moved forward in life.
When I first moved here, I actually moved to New Iberia first for a summer, to write this album. Both of my grandparents are from New Iberia, and they actually fled from New Iberia because of the Ku Klux Klan. They chased them out of New Iberia, and they moved to Galveston. I knew that I wanted to write the album in that part of Louisiana, but a very interesting thing happened. There weren’t, like, Airbnbs out in that area. I was having trouble locating a space to record the album in. And a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend knew someone who had a home there, in a little town called Patoutville that was 10 minutes away from New Iberia. He was willing to let me set up my studio equipment and record there. That was another challenge I had. A lot of people in that region were like, “You’re bringing what here?” So I packed up my little ProTools rig, just me and my engineer. We had jam sessions in this little house in Patoutville and started to build these songs.
One of my assistants at the time had a very strong spiritual connection, in a way that I am not very in tune with. She continued to talk about a certain heaviness that existed on the property. And my engineer Googled the property and found out that it was one of the top seven, I believe, plantations, in terms of the amount of slaves that they had. We did all this research and eventually found out that this guy that I was renting the house from was related to me. It was a strong pull there.
I also visited my grandparents. They had a cemetery that they owned for some time there, which was about 15 minutes from where I was staying. And I just roamed the town on the weekends. I’d go to the zydeco. My son and husband would come up, and I had the sense of wanting to trace where they might’ve dwelled, or where they might’ve roamed. That was so extremely healing for me, and a huge part of what drew me to Louisiana.
STEREOGUM: When you were roaming around the town, would people recognize you?
SOLANGE: They did, and a lot of people said that they were my cousins [laughs]. A lot, a lot, a lot of people. But everyone was super-lovely. We went to a couple of zydecos here, and that was such an incredible experience. People were really kind and warm and loving. We actually went to some Cajun music places as well. I’m still trying to understand the difference between Cajun music and zydeco, outside of the fact that zydecos are performed by black musicians and Cajun music is performed by white musicians. The sounds, sonically, sounded the same to me, but I’m not at all an expert. Both experiences were really incredible. My album couldn’t be further from that sonically, but musically feeling connected in that region was really, really special and soulful, something that definitely had a rhythm and a pull. When you’re immersed in music, when you’re making an album, there’s something really special about that.
STEREOGUM: One of the inspirations you mentioned was Master P and No Limit Records. Was that a Louisiana connection, or does that influence make itself felt musically on the record?
SOLANGE: By the time this piece comes out, you’ll know that Master P actually narrates my album. I remember being a teenager, much like many teenagers at the time, and seeing Master P on MTV Cribs, and it being one of the most gaudy, incredible displays of wealth that I had ever seen in my life. It really impacted me that, out of all the houses on MTV Cribs, this was a black man from New Orleans, and he got this by completely staying firm in his independence.
As a teenager, and my family being in the industry, I would hear my dad talk about No Limit and how they never sold their company and how they started from the trunks, from nowhere, from nothing. It left a huge impression on me. I saw a lot of my father in Master P, and him in my father, as young black men who dreamed really big and manifested those dreams. Although I, like everybody else, loved “Hoody Hoo” and TRU and all of the No Limit jams, I, at a very young age, felt a deep, deep connection with his story.
When I was about 13, I did a Luther Vandross cover with Lil Romeo [Master P’s son]. Master P reached out to my label at the time about doing the song, and I was super-psyched to do it. They said, “We have a studio in our house, and we have a home in Houston.” Getting the address — and this was, like, MapQuest days — I realized that they lived 10 minutes from our house. Working with him, I remember him saying, “OK, this is the Luther Vandross song that you’re going to cover the hook for,” and me being like, “Yeah, I know this song very well.” He was like, “Oh, that’s kind of cool that you know the song.” I was a bratty, headstrong teenager, and I probably could’ve used the help, but I was adamant about producing my own vocals. He was trying to guide me throughout that process, and I was really headstrong about that. After a couple of takes, he was like, “You know what? You have it.” And he’s still Master P to me. The whole experience was just incredible.
I did get an opportunity recently to meet and work with him, and I was so connected with his overall story and his approach, him as a family man, the whole thing. I called him in to do one interlude on a song. The song is about independence and rising up and keeping your head high despite what comes for you and also knowing that, when you stay strong, things will prosper. I thought: Who better to articulate that than Master P? I asked if he would come in and do an interlude based off of what I played him, and he ended up going into great detail about his journey. It was so overwhelmingly powerful, and such a huge part of the story, that I asked if he would consider narrating the entire album.
And so he ended up talking for like an hour and a half. He just talked from the heart, talked about his story and his journey. And then I asked if he could come back, now that he had the idea and I could give him what the songs were about, and he could speak from his experiences if they were aligned at all. And none of that actually made the album. What you hear is him telling his story, and it’s just unbelievable how well that connected with the songs that I’d already written.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned your father. He’s also on your list of inspirations. It’s a weird thing to ask, but how did your father influence you?
SOLANGE: [Laughs] This album has an overwhelming sense of me just trying to figure some shit out, you know? Me not having all the answers. I worked through that through the album. And one of the main things that motivated me to make this album was the older that my son got, me wanting to identify and understand how I could nurture and protect him during this time. For me, that had to start with learning and understanding how that was done for me. And for me, that started with my parents, obviously.
I always knew, growing up, that my dad had encountered these extremely traumatic, racially motivated experiences that were just awful. I always heard about them. But we never opened up a space to fully, fully have that conversation until this album. I also interviewed him for the album, and really just for life, and he walked me through the entire journey for the first time. He walked me through being one of seven black students to integrate his junior high school and high school. He walked me through going to school the first day and the state trooper taking them, parents spitting on them, KKK members threatening to kill them, the lunch lady spitting in his food and making him eat it. He walked me through being electric-prodded.
All of these events that I literally could not imagine — him, this strong, dominant, confident, headstrong, innovative black man, going through these things and getting to the point to where he is now, where we are as a family. I recognize that essentially it couldn’t be possible for a number of reasons, but it literally could not be possible for us to even be a thought if it were not for my dad going through those experiences so we could stand and exist as who we are. That was so affirming to me throughout the process of making this album: Yeah, we have it bad, and it’s all relative, but then I would remind myself of some of the things that my dad went through so that my son could never have to endure those things. It really became a strong focal point for the album.
STEREOGUM: Another thing that you’ve listed is Lauryn Hill’s Unplugged album. That’s an album that’s endured a lot of disrespect over the years, and it’s a fascinating document of someone who was thrust into superstardom and was completely determined to break whatever narrative was being imposed on her. Did you feel any identification there? True was a huge record, but it was also a light and fun record in a lot of ways.
SOLANGE: One of the interesting things about my work as an artist and a songwriter and musician is that I tend to reflect the eras of my life through my work. And I am a very complex, nuanced, messy, ever-evolving and changing and growing woman. I live that out through my work. It’s really easy to look at my catalog of work and note that there are drastic differences and then notice that there are some similarities as well. When I seek out to do a project, the reason that it sometimes takes so long is that I’m spending the first quarter of that project really trying to figure out what I’m trying to communicate. I remember True, it changing up through every single one of my shows, almost becoming a cheerleader or camp leader to my band, saying that what I want to achieve when we’re out there on that stage is to provoke joy and happiness and lightness, to give people, even for a glimmer of a moment, a time to disconnect from all of their woes and their troubles, to just exist in joy.
What’s really interesting at this stage of my life is that I recognize that those are so valid. In my experience as a black woman and sharing with the world, I recognize the complexities of having to showcase black joy almost as a response to something that feels like we have to make it a term for it to be something that exists. I recognized my connection then — wanting to create that record, but also having the first visual connection and reference to be connected to the Sapeurs culture in Africa and still highlighting a sense of social activism in my own way. “I Decided,” from Sol-Angel And The Hadley Street Dreams, my first video, if you look closely, there are all kinds of references to black social issues. There’s so many Civil Rights references in that video. The confederate flag is ingrained in that video, the Black Power sign at the Olympics is there. But because sonically the album was really upbeat and bright as well, people did not really see it that way. Even my body of work as a teenager, the aesthetics were very African-driven in the colors that I decided to put on display on my album cover, or my first video. I’ve always had that to my work, and it’s been how I’ve channeled it and how I’ve expressed it.
You have to create work that rings true to you at that time, no matter how complicated it might get. And True was me trying to connect with that part of myself in a more positive, uplifting way and feeling really settled and happy in my own life and love, really grounded. That was intentional. I spent a great deal of time, recording the album, saying that I wanted to make something very bright, something very joyful, I want to make people feel good. But that changes. That evolves. Things get complex. The world is changing. And so it’s no coincidence why art right now is reflecting our time. It’s been that way since the beginning of time, and that’s the way it should be.
I approached this album with the same tonality. I call it my punk album. Punk artists have been allowed to be disruptive and rage and express anger, be anti-establishment, even when it means destroying property, even when it means provoking violence through moshing or whatever. That’s something that black artists are not usually able to do, especially R&B artists. Hip-hop has more allowance than that, but as an R&B artist, it’s really a hard thing to occupy.
The Unplugged album, for me, occupies that space. I remember seeing that MTV special like everyone else and being like, “Whoa, this is some real shit right here. She is saying some really disruptive things that are going to shake some people up.” But all of it was true, and all of it was her truth. I remember the conversations, people dehumanizing her for that work and making that transition. I remember those conversations so vividly, and me feeling like I have to defend her as a young woman who loves both sides of her work. What’s interesting is, in time, that album has really evolved in people’s minds. I’ll play “I Get Out” now, and people holler and wave their hands and identify. There are just some artists who have to take the L when they’re approaching their truth, and I certainly think she did with that album
STEREOGUM: Have you worried about taking the L?
SOLANGE: I think I’m past that [laughs]. I think I’m way past that. There certainly was a sense of fear in the beginning of the process. I didn’t intentionally say, “This is what the album will be like. These are the conversations.” It’s what existed in my life at the time. And I remember having conversations with friends, being like, “Well, this is pretty scary.” But honestly, it’s so undeniable right now. Even though sometimes it became so taxing and exhausting, I think every single thing that happened had to happen for me to transition from fear to triumph. And based on that now, I’ve achieved something that’s going to greatly change my life and change my son’s life. And if that’s the greater context, then it’s like, a L ain’t nothing.
STEREOGUM: We’re having this conversation a day after Donald Trump said that he would heal the racial divide in America by instating stop-and-frisk as a national police strategy. Obviously, your music is really personal; it has to do with your life. But is there a sense that you couldn’t necessarily make music that expressed black joy in the same way in the current climate?
SOLANGE: Oh, no. I think that every single form of expression is so valid right now, so needed and so necessary. I believe you gotta have it all. It’s not different or exclusive to me — a lot of people feel this way — but I feel like all of these forms of expression are part of the activism that we need right now in order to cope and to practice self-care. I receive black joy by listening to [Lil Yachty’s] “Minnesota” and wilding out. I feel like every single form of that right now is so needed, and I really tried to detach myself from having any views on any of those things other than the exact response to how it makes me feel inside. So I think that we need art that’s going to reflect that. We need art that’s going to reflect pain. We need everything in between and outside and around that. That’s who we are as a people, all of those things. Right now, True would be just as valid in my walk as this album would. It’s just the timing and what I created.
STEREOGUM: Sonically, a lot of the music that you listed has a sort of languid expansiveness to it: Minnie Riperton, Tweet’s Southern Hummingbird, Syreetta Wright’s “Black Maybe.” A lot of these are songs that deal with heavier issues and some personal issues. But you mentioned specifically Warren Campbell’s work on Kanye West’s “We Major,” which is just suffocatingly beautiful. There’s a through-line in a lot of those, and it’s a sort of almost radical beauty. Is that something you’ve been shooting for?
SOLANGE: Yeah! [Laughs] That’s a beautiful way to describe it. I think that there’s something in Warren Campbell’s piano and production on “We Major” that, especially for me, feels like black regality. It feels like black kings and queens. The song is not exclusive to the black experience, but when I hear those sounds, that’s what I hear and what I see. At my wedding, I didn’t have a theme, I didn’t have bridesmaids, but “We Major” was the common theme of my wedding. Instead of bridesmaids, I had majorettes [laughs]. We played the song constantly. It’s a song that my husband and I have always connected with.
For me, the inspiration behind that was the way that those horns and that piano feel so explicitly soulful and black and church and beautiful and regal. All the complexities of those sounds were something I yearned to embody as a thread of this album. The thread builds along throughout the album, with the horn production and the piano production. Musicians would come, and I would directly play them Warren Campbell’s piano, like, “This is the soul and the nerve that I’m trying to touch.” I actually had him come in. We worked for a little while on the album. Just having him energetically being a part of the process — just in terms of sitting in a room and hearing him play the piano — was enough to directly inspire how I wanted my piano sounds to sound. I was very upfront about that, so all the credit is due to him. He was my sonic reference when it came to piano and horns.
I actually end the album with the same horn section that played on “We Major,” and they were just such a powerful group of men who came in, late-night one night, and killed. There’s a lot of horns on the album. Honestly, there’s something about horns that are recurring and reappearing throughout music, and I think a lot of that is longing to display that regality and the optimism and confidence that those sounds, when used in a specific way, can make you feel. There’s a direct connection for me in certain horn sounds, where you just automatically feel like, “You know what? I’ve arrived.” That was a huge inspiration.
And on the flipside, I think that vocally, Minnie and Tweet and Syreetta, the tonality of their voices, the sweetness, the richness, that was something that I wanted to situate more in my vocal performances. I think that Tweet is probably singlehandedly the biggest vocal influence. I can’t even put myself in the same sentence as her vocally, but I certainly tried to connect with that subtle, quiet, complex performance. When I couldn’t deliver that, I actually called her and requested her to come in and put that on three songs. She did, and she killed it. She’s phenomenal. I’m in the Tweet fan club. I remember driving two hours from Houston with my mom, going and seeing her perform at Prarie View University, just her and a guitar when I was like 15. It was just so special. She has such a gift with her vocals. I tried. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I tried.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned a few books and visual artists, as well. Have you always taken inspiration from outside of music when you’ve been making music?
SOLANGE: I do. I definitely have visual references before an album that play into the sonics that I’m wishing to achieve. For this album, there were three or four artists whose work I would constantly revisit while creating this album. Robert Pruitt was one of those for sure. I constantly would revisit his work. And just the way that he’s able to create these characters, to provoke the regality and the Afro-future aesthetic and synergy, that was something that I wanted to achieve throughout the duration of this album.
Sonically, I don’t think they were a direct inspiration, but I listened to a lot of Sun Ra, and I listened to a lot of Alice Coltrane. That intersection between their work really helped me to imagine how I could use elements of that space to promote a frequency in a song that wasn’t there. I think when you hear the album, you’ll hear that. Out of nowhere, there’s a certain frequency that I think directly channels that, wanting to connect with that higher being or higher power or higher frequency inside of you. That was a huge inspiration.
Also, Rothko’s work at the Menil Museum on Houston is so overwhelmingly powerful, and it’s also very dark. There’s a chapel there that has four canvases that are different nuanced shades of black. I went there about seven or eight times throughout the duration of creating this album, and I just sat there for hours and reflected on so many things. Being in Houston and having that space — being from Houston and all of the connectivity there — was really strong for me. Those have been my connections. Throughout the duration of this album, I would go to them and try to center myself, to figure out what it was that I was missing.