It's been three years since Solange Knowles released new music. After all that time in musical silence, with only her fashion collabs and social-media feeds connecting her to us, Solange returns with a gift for Black America with her new album, A Seat at the Table. To offer someone a seat at a table is to include them; to make their thoughts, feelings, and opinions valid. For Black Americans, struggling through an election filled with racist rhetoric and a news cycle dominated by the killing of unarmed Black men and women, it often feels as if we'll never be offered a seat without conditions. Solange's 21-track album gives a voice to the voiceless with a cohesive, calming, and sumptuous sound that blends electronica with funk and R & B. If Beyoncé's Lemonade was a call to action for her sisters as a picture of the Black female experience in America, then Solange's album is a meditation on the experiences of both Black men and women and a call for self-care. Rage, despair, empowerment, and healing are the themes of the album, gently peppered with powerful interludes featuring her mother, father, and hip-hop mogul Master P, who Solange said she admires for "never selling his shit" and being a self-made success.
With songs like "Losing You," a collab with Dev Hynes, Solange's sound has always bordered on the periphery of the pop and R & B mainstream. Here, she continues to walk that tightrope with the help of Raphael Saadiq, who she tapped to co-produce while she wrote and arranged the entirety of the project.
Additionally, Questlove, Ray Angry, Majical Cloudz, Sampha, and Sean Nicholas Savage did production work. Hynes, Tweet, Sampha, The-Dream, BJ the Chicago Kid, Q-Tip, Lil Wayne, Moses Sumney, Kelly Rowland, Kelela, and Nia Andrews all contributed vocals. It's worth noting that Dev Hynes is not one of the producers, following a split after a Twitter feud over how involved he was in her previous work. (The pair later reconciled and he has praised the new album.) Each song is powerful enough to stand alone, but the album flows together naturally. The missing piece would be the visual element, which Solange tries to provide with a digital art book that features images and song lyrics in geometric lines across a page. It's not quite as powerful as a visual album, but something to hold you over until videos follow. The album opens with the 90-second track "Rise." It's a delicate tune that starts abruptly, catching you off guard. At its end, synthesizers are injected into her soft call to "fall in your ways so you can crumble / Fall in your ways so you can sleep at night / Fall in your ways so you can wake up and rise." It transforms into "Weary,” a song filled with organs, guitar, and bass that sounds rightfully heavy considering its lyrics are a confession of weariness and loneliness. It's a theme she sticks to in the later track "Borderline (An Ode To Self-Care)," where she sings "I'm tired." Together, they sound like a collective sigh from the Black community. In "Interlude: The Glory is in You," the message is to find self-peace. That is followed by the upbeat "Cranes in the Sky," which is pretty, delicate, and feathery in sound, sometimes reminiscent of Minnie Riperton. But in subject matter, "Cranes" is heavy. It's a song about attempts to alleviate pain with alcohol, sex, music, or even running away.
In the following interlude, Mathew Knowles speaks about his childhood filled with "integration, segregation, and racism" which left him "angry for years." From there, we transition into "Mad," with Lil Wayne, a song about indignation and anger. Lil Wayne is an interesting choice, given that he received heavy criticism earlier this year for claiming that racism is over and also for saying that he has never experienced racism. Still, his verse is biting with rage without him ever having to raise his voice. That's key, since the song itself is soft and sweet, but focused on anger — a direct challenge to the angry Black woman stereotype. Solange sings at one point, "You have the right to be mad," to her people, a reminder that your anger is valid and real. "Don't You Wait" pulsates with elements of funk, drums, and bass before we hear Ms. Tina Lawson proclaim, "There's so much beauty in being Black." Her short interlude is a reminder that celebrating Black beauty isn't the same as being anti-white. From there, Solange segues into "Don't Touch My Hair." It's an electronic/funk track exploring a common experience for Black women: that moment when someone, uninvited, runs their fingers through your hair. Another Master P interlude pops up next, this time about worth and independence, followed by what might be the best song on the album, "F.U.B.U.," a nod to the '90s fashion label For Us By Us. With the track, Solange makes it clear that, for once, "this shit is for us" and no one else. She celebrates the pain and the triumphs of the Black experience. And when she croons, "I hope my son will bang this song so loud / That he almost makes his walls fall down / Cos his momma wants to make him proud / Oh to be us," it makes me smile. The hashtag and idea of "Black girl magic" has become mainstream, but it's revisited here, first in an interlude with a three-person harmony of voices singing “Don’t let anybody steal your magic.” The message continues over to “Junie,” as they sing, “I got so much y'all.” That transitions from a capella to a sound straight out of the '70s, thanks to the heavy bass and shouts of “Jump on it!" The album slips back to its electronic vibe for "Don't Wish Me Well," but at its core, the song stays soulful. The interlude "Pedestals" is yet another reminder for self-care. Master P says, in frank terms, "Black kids have to figure [it] out / We don't have a rehab to go to / You gotta rehab yourself." "Scales" is slow, with staggered harmonies from Kelela. It pounds onward, somewhat distorted, until Master P comes back with a striking end to the album. He says to his people, "We come here as slaves, but we going out as royalty." It's an uplifting end. But after a year like 2016, you're left with the question of where to go from here. It's one Solange poses directly in lyrics and indirectly with this album. It's the million-dollar question in America right now. What comes next after the unrest? If this album is any indication, it's healing.