Premature Evaluation: Solange A Seat At The Table
Solange Knowles is no longer the Angry Black Woman.
In the four years since Solange released her excellent True EP in November 2012, racial tension in America has only become more tumultuous. Trayvon Martin died earlier that year, and his killer George Zimmerman’s acquittal the following summer turned Martin into the first of many martyrs and hashtags that would become the Black Lives Matter movement. Like anyone with the slightest bit of empathy, Solange was affected by Martin’s death. Like any proud black person, she was rightfully incensed at Zimmerman’s exoneration.
Since then Solange has become one of the most brazen and outspoken artists for black activism online and offline, beginning with what’s now referred to as the Brandy deep-cut incident, in which she called on music blogs to hire “people who REALLY understand the culture of R&B to write about R&B.” Last year, she debuted “Rise,” the opener on A Seat At The Table, which was inspired by protests for Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. This year, she rehashed her defense of Brandy with some choice words on Twitter for New York Times critic Jon Caramanica, shared a short cover of Syreeta’s “Black Maybe” after the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and penned an essay about being a minority in predominantly white spaces.
Speaking up as black person is never quite welcomed and damn sure isn’t celebrated in this country. That old “race card” is still in the deck, and black folks are still accused of playing it out of turn. Those attitudes combined with instances where her anger has gotten the best of her — like the elevator with Jay Z and Beyoncé and her brief falling out with Dev Hynes on Twitter — have earned her the combative, abrasive label of the stereotypical ABW.
On A Seat At The Table, Solange is eschewing that stereotype ever so gracefully.
At first glance it wouldn’t seem so. Her inspirations for the album and song titles like “Mad,” “Don’t Touch My Hair,” “F.U.B.U.” (which stands for For Us By Us), and “Don’t Wish Me Well” hint at confrontational bouts and not the smooth, even-keeled anthems they actually are. Solange could have taken everything from the past four years — the comments about her after the elevator attack, the police killings, the lime thrown at her back at the Kraftwerk concert — and turned them into a seething album full of outrage, anger, and confrontation. Instead, she has sagely and maturely distilled that indignation into something simultaneously tender and forceful. She’s neither asking for a seat at the table nor taking it. She’s not dealing in respectability politics, nor is she militant. She chooses when to peel back her skin to vulnerably expose her most inward feelings and character, and when to wear it proudly — even letting others speak when she feels they will more aptly and potently express something.
Voices other than Solange’s are the most political and direct. Master P’s narrative soliloquies laced throughout the album are the most politically plainspoken we’ve ever heard him. Percy Miller speaks, not the perennial Forbes list entry or the materialistic rapper we’ve come to know. We’ve heard the stories about how he got his start before, but he assigns new meaning to them by revealing the racial motivations behind his moves. Tidbits like “What do you think I’m worth if this white man offers me a million dollars? I gotta be worth 40 or 50 [million],” and “You ain’t got to work here no more, big mama, we got more money than the people on St. Charles Street” provide new insight. Direct statements like “If you don’t understand us and understand what we’ve been through, then you probably wouldn’t understand what this moment is about” relay the fact that not everyone is going to understand black culture or appreciate it properly. By having the top No Limit soldier say it unabashedly, Solange doesn’t have to. This gives her room to be less heavy-handed in her forcefulness and extend a more conciliatory, guiding hand when she wants to. It also takes the bite out of lyrics like “All my niggas in the whole wide world…this shit is for us” on “F.U.B.U.”
We hear her father, Mathew Knowles, look back on how he overcame the paralyzing anger sparked in him when white parents and KKK members threw cans and spat at him and five other children chosen to integrate a school he attended. His story makes Dave Longstreth’s wobbly, neo-soul inflected beat and Lil Wayne’s verses on “Mad” that much more powerful. Wayne hasn’t quite shied away from political or racial issues in his career (remember “Georgia Bush” from The Dedication 2?), but he recently said there was “no such thing as racism” because he performs in front of majority white crowds. Wayne’s verses deal more with his personal struggle as an artist. And although there are inherent racial issues because Wayne is black, Mr. Knowles’ story is what frames the song in a racial context. Solange’s message of relinquishing the anger in the interest of self-care is heightened by her personal experiences, her father’s experiences, and the contextualization of Wayne’s laments, and that makes for a powerful racial statement.
A couple tracks later we hear her mother, Tina Beyincé-Lawson, give an inspired speech about how being pro-black is not anti-white, and how hurt she is when other races misconstrue black pride and are uninterested in learning about it. Her short monologue frames the Sampha-assisted “Don’t Touch My Hair” as a warmhearted appeal for more understanding and healing in racial relations. It also doesn’t hurt that Sampha and Solange sound incredibly soulful and raw over Dilla-esque siren synths, triumphant Nawlins horns, and intricate drums.
Solange isn’t muffled in the slightest among others, though — especially sonically. Her sensibilities are still all over the album. The indie darling in her contributes the shimmering synths on “Don’t Wish Me Well,” the dance vibes on “Don’t You Wait” and the warped moments “Scales,” and brings in Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij for writing and production credits. Her deep study of black music provides the varied range of blues, funk, traditional R&B, neo-soul, and pop, and keeps the steady presence of blackness coursing throughout the album subtly, all the way down to the horns in “F.U.B.U.” that nod to C Murder’s “Down For My Niggas.” Where To Pimp A Butterfly was overwhelmingly black and angry in sound, the sonics on A Seat match Solange’s more serene temperament.
She’s also proven she hasn’t lost her songwriting ability over the last four years. A Seat situates itself between the more overt blackness of Jamila Woods’ HEAVN and the abstract storytelling with ebony shades bubbling underneath on NoName’s Telefone. Solange’s balance of the artistic and the political is deftly struck, and that’s something that eludes many an artist.
A Seat isn’t just a good political album, a good activism album, a good R&B album, a good indie album, or a good black album. It’s all of those things, so it’s a great album. Each of those elements make it feel like a humongous moment, but it never gets too hefty. Despite everything it encompasses lyrically, aurally, culturally, and politically, the album is well-paced and agile. Solange deserves her seat at the table with her generation’s other awesome, unapologetically black albums like To Pimp A Butterfly, Black Messiah, and Lemonade. Someone pull her up a muhfuckin’ chair already.