Solange has described her album “a project on identity, empowerment, independence, grief and healing.”
And she’s right.
A Seat At The Table is quiet and intelligent. However, it’s loud in its reverence of blackness, and all of the joy, heartbreak, pain, brashness and required resiliency that being black in traditionally white spaces entails. It’s a layered offering that celebrates being a black woman in a way that immediately makes you think of, well, her sister’s Lemonade.
The comparison between the two records A Seat At The Table and Lemonade is easy to make and kind of inevitable, but not only because Solange and Beyoncé are sisters. Although the approach and listening experiences are vastly different and completely their own, there’s an undeniable similarity weaved through both projects that hail from the same place—the celebration of a being a black girl in a world that has undervalued, under-represented, nullified and exploited our experiences.
Both are real. Both are brilliant. Both are bold. Both are absolutely necessary. Beyoncé declares she likes her “baby hair with baby hair and Afros” on Lemonade— Solange calmly warns, “don’t touch my hair when it’s the feelings I wear” on A Seat At the Table. The communication is different but the overall message is the same: You will not exploit us in your ongoing curiosity about our blackness. You will not commodify our existence while simultaneously denying it. Beyoncé pushed us through the pain by urging us to recognize our strength; Solange soothes and guides us through it by urging us to recognize our truth.
While the comparisons are indeed inevitable, A Seat At The Table obviously stands firmly on its own. Where a line can be drawn from Lemonade to Joi’s grossly overlooked 2005 release, Tennessee Slim Is The Bomb—not musically, but in terms of brazeness and certainty when speaking of overcoming hurt and the power of being a black woman— a path can be drawn from A Seat At the Table to Erykah Badu’s 2008 release, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War). A socio-political statement is being made here, wrapped and kept warm by unabashed femininity.
Musically, Solange has been molding and crafting her sound and vision for nearly a decade, since the release of her under-appreciated full-length, 2008’s Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams. Four years later, Solange affirmed her evolution, the growth she’d experienced as a woman and how that translated musically on 2012’s True, a six-song EP that was ambient and untroubled, dipping in and out of emotion without ever losing its carefree vibe. As a result, everyone’s cool, go-to black girl for all things innovative and cultural was born. Solange has the kind of cool that doesn’t seem completely unattainable; she has the cool that feels like if you just open yourself up, and push past whatever society-crafted boundaries you’ve allowed to be placed on yourself, you too, could achieve it. And that’s what makes her so relatable, but also so visionary. If True was Solange recognizing her independence and beauty as a woman, A Seat At the Table is her living it. This sounds like the album she’s been waiting to make.
Sonically, the album is breezy and open, led mostly by deep, rich bass lines (Raphael Saadiq on bass and production is truly a treasure) and soft piano melodies that bring to mind KING’s outstanding early 2016 debut, We Are KING. The album is world-building. When you listen to it, it takes you somewhere else, a place of escapism, though it remains grounded and eerily present. Solange, who wrote, arranged and co-produced every song on the album, creates a unique space for listeners, a world that is soft and mellow, a salve for weary minds and souls searching for peace. It’s relaxing, even spiritual. But where KING’s album maintained a focus on love and relationships (of both oneself and others), A Seat At The Table aims to make a statement about self-love in a space that often seeks to destroy, demean and denigrate the souls of black folks, specifically women.
“But what you gonna do when they saw all your moves and practiced em daily?
Protect your neck or give invitations?” she slyly asks on the exuberant, gospel-esque “Junie.”
A Seat At the Table reflects the turbulent time we’re in, where it seems as if we’re fighting for the right to exist, to just be on a daily basis. This point is weaved throughout the album not only by Solange’s smart, pointed lyrics but by the poignant interludes which are spoken by men and women outlining the black experience through personal anecdotes, stories and observations. On “The Glory is in You,” Master P asks, “Where is the peace? See, you got do stuff till you gotta go sleep at night. Cause the glory is in you.”
Yes, that’s Master P, subtly illustrating one of the best points of the this ambitious project— progression and resistance can also be secular. A lesson well-learned during this season Black America finds itself in. Solange pulls P in for other interludes, along with her dad, Matthew Knowles on “Dad Was Mad” where he talks bluntly about his experience with integration and the anger its resistance produced. On the self-explanatory interlude, “Tina Taught Me,” Tina Lawson, Solange’s mother, offers her thoughts black pride, and why there’s such a concerted effort to suppress that pride.
“I’ve always been proud to be Black,” she says. “Never wanted to be nothing else. It’s such beauty in Black people, and it really saddens me when we’re not allowed to express that pride in being Black.”
Master P shows up again on “Pedestals,” with both a warning and heartfelt observation.
“You know, we’re putting people on a pedestal that’s just a human like us” he says. “You know, I mean, they got more drugs in the rich neighborhoods than they got in the hood. A lot of their kids dying from overdosing, things like that, think about it. Black kids have to figure it out! We don’t have rehabs to go to. You gotta rehab yourself. But for us, you can’t pull the plug on us and tell us it’s over. Not me.”
While the interludes tie the project together thematically, the music is clean, crisp, thought-provoking and affirming. Raphael Saadiq’s production fingerprints are all over this release and along with Solo, Troy “R8DIO” Johnson and Sir Dylan, they’ve created a sound that is lush but not overbearing, cohesive without being redundant. This is especially true on the notable “Weary,” which establishes the tone Solange sets for the album early.
“I’m gonna look for my body yeah/I’ll be back real soon/I’m gonna look for my body yeah/I’ll be back real soon,” Solange sings softly. There’s a relaxed urgency to the song, one that speaks to the quiet madness that lingers in the air these days as America continues to grapple with its past and present demons.
On “Crane In the Sky,” an easy standout on the project, defined by Saadiq’s lazy, rolling bass line and slow strings, Solange’s lyrics are forthright and poetic, while her delivery is achingly clear.
“I tried to drink it away/I tried to put one in the air/I tried to dance it away/I tried to change it with my hair,” she sings. “I tried to work it away/But that just made me even sadder,” she adds before admitting her pains is like “cranes in the sky” or “metal clouds.”
On “Mad,” which will likely emerge as a fan favorite, Lil Wayne’s presence is felt but never overbearing, as he delivers a raw verse that’s heartbreaking and honest.
“You got the right to be mad/But when you carry it alone you find only getting in the way/They say you gotta let it go,” Solo sings before Wayne counters, “Yeah but I got a lot to be mad about/Got a lot to be a man about/Got a lot to pop a xan about/I used to rock hand-me-downs, and now I rock standing crowds.”
The aforementioned “Don’t Touch My Hair” is another instant favorite, a line that’s been uttered by black girls ’round the world at some point, that brilliantly speaks to the mainstream’s desire to commodify black girl magic. “Don’t touch my soul,” Solange instructs, “when it’s the rhythm I know.”
A Seat At the Table is easily one the best, boldest releases of the year. Bold because in these times, black people unapologetically affirming their humanity is viewed as such. Great because never is does the message supersede the music– sonic engagement is clearly just as important here. Solange has crafted an album for the day, that is brilliant in its subtle, poetic commentary and observations about what it is to be black in America.
And the struggle is beautiful indeed.