A Seat At The Table * Solange (Knowles) * R&B * September 30, 2016
Solange Knowles has followed an interesting path when it comes to her creative endeavors. While she combines music, visual art, and fashion into a statement that represents her at the moment, there is a lot of continuity in Solange’s output. Despite the fact that there tends to be years between album releases, (with the exception of Solo Star) you can hear what sounds like a girl coming into womanhood while keeping a core that is her own. Her sound has been oddly and pleasantly consistent over the years considering her access to producers, but it is never the same from project to project; you can always hear the growth.
In her latest endeavor, Solange attempts to continue growing along her own separate musical path by taking a chance and putting out an album that has a clear social consciousness message behind it without trying to shield that message from naysayers. She also goes one step further and does something that many artists are afraid to do; write almost all the lyrics herself as well as doing a large amount of the producing (not composing).
*Be aware that, depending on your audio setup/headphones, your listening experience will be different. The better your audio equipment, the more likely you are to hear the intricacies of the production and the easier it is to understand Solange in certain sections. Our review is based on that optimum listen condition.
1. Rise – An intro that seems to start almost like you’re just jumping into a conversation as the music starts on the offbeat. Solange utilizes harmonies on this track for the entirety, but her vocals are clear and have a tinge of youth still on them. The production gives nods to the sixties and seventies R&B/funk sound, most directly Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On album, with its rising and falling melodies. The first line is poignant as she says to fall in your ways/so you will crumble, suggesting that you are letting a wall down to let others in. The next two lines seem to say that doing so will let you sleep easier at night and allow you to awaken ready to conquer the world. After two repetitions of the short verse and a brief pause, though, she changes two words and the entire song’s meaning changes. Instead of saying to fall in your ways she says to walk in your ways/so you won’t crumble. You begin to realize that what she really is talking about is the battle that so many face in owning themselves and the struggles around them. If you are willing to let the core of yourself fall, you will crumble. If you disown the things that make you ‘you’, there is disintegration. It’s a short track with not a lot of words, but it says so much and lets you know what’s in store for the next fifty minutes. A great opener.
2. Weary – The transition between these two tracks is a little jarring as there is no hard stop between them, but the style of music eases the flow as the soulful rhythms and bassline of this one immediately soothe the ears. As the track progresses, though, there are sections that have underlying synth and the odd off-kilter piano plunk that, while little odd to the ears, doesn’t impede the flow of the production. Speaking on being weary with life and the hardships of it, she seems to be in a conversation with her inner self about where she fits in the world compared to those with power and coming to the realization that they are no more or less human than she and continuing on to seek her own path to internal power and peace. The lyrics say so much in so little wordage; I’m gonna look for my body, yeah/I’ll be back real soon. It conveys a strength of spirit while also acknowledging loss and hardship. I’m gonna look for my glory, yeah/I’ll be back real soon. It says I’m seeking to achieve, but I will not leave you (or myself) behind. Solange comes into this track at about half volume, relaying that weariness through her vocal performance. Joined with the backing vocals of Tweet, the singer manages to create a mood that says to listen and take heed. There are not ton of adlibs, and that works for this track as someone who is weary doesn’t have a lot of energy to expend on the extras. Still, the song still manages to come off as interesting and makes you focus on the message that joins both this and the intro. A solid track.
3. Interlude: The Glory Is In You – Spoken by Master P, this brief aside just joins the two previous tracks in a concrete way. Says that you have to find a way to success without losing yourself or your soul.
4. Cranes In The Sky – Another jarring transition as the piano melody from the previous two tracks is immediately cut off by a boom-bap drumbeat, but the ears settle in quickly as the whiplash effect is brief. While slightly more upbeat than the previous songs, this still has a distinct mid-tempo groove to it. It still has that throwback sound, but it’s not so similar to the other songs they are indistinguishable from each other. Solange’s vocals have a Minnie Riperton quality to them, especially towards the end as she comes in with the lilting adlibs and escalating high notes that manage to stay at volume and strength. The adlibs are right on time and perfect for this track as she speaks about trying to rise about the emptiness and strife that she feels in the life through different ways, but ultimately not being able to escape the weight. The juxtaposition between the troubles she feels internally and what she ends up showing the world is profound. All the things she describes as attempted escapes could easily have her be mistaken as someone who is happy and fulfilled, perhaps compounding that emptiness and sadness because she cannot share it with anyone. A beautifully complex song that doesn’t go over the average listener’s head. You can see why it was chosen as a single.
5. Interlude: Dad Was Mad – A spoken interlude by Matthew Knowles that tells a little bit of his story growing up in the changing but still Jim Crow south and how those conditions instilled an anger in him that was long to dissipate.
6. Mad – The transitions are becoming less jarring as the album continues and you begin to expect them, so when the beat switch comes for this track all I notice is the combination of gospel piano and heavy bass. The genetic tonal similarities between Solange and her sister are probably their most obvious on this track, but Solange still manages to do a good job of owning her parts of the song. Oddly enough, this track really does feel like it belongs to Lil Wayne as he gets the most time on the track and the second verse ends up being more centered around him towards the end. The overall theme of the track connects to the idea that when black people (and people of color/women in general) get fed up about the conditions of their lives or the slights they feel, people turn and ask why are they angry all the time. It goes further in that it seems to connect to the fact that Solange, as someone of privilege, gets even more scrutiny as people believe that her life is better than most others. Lil Wayne does an excellent job of staying on topic and the last chorus, when he joins Solange in singing, actually comes off well and provides a nice counterpoint to her sweeter vocals.
7. Don’t You Wait – The first really upbeat track of the album, there is an eighties vibe teamed with some African rhythms. Solange’s vocals are good, but she can’t solidly accomplish all the scale transitions between alto and soprano. It doesn’t ruin the song, but it is noticeable. What makes up for it is the lyricism of the track. At first, this song seems to be about a relationship where Solange is tired of giving her lover her all and getting nothing in return. It’s not until about halfway through that you realize she is talking about the black man/woman’s relationship with America and how, after giving everything to build it into what it is, we often feel like we are getting nothing in return. One of the weaker songs on the album in totality, but still worth a few listens for the message it provides.
8. Interlude: Tina Taught Me – Of all the interludes on this album, this is a favorite. It’s Tina Lawson (Solange’s mother) describing her pride in her blackness and how that translates to a greater love of herself instead of a hatred for others. This is a standout, even among the full length songs, because of how affirming the message is.
9. Don’t Touch My Hair – The meaning of this track combines perfectly with the preceding interlude as a combination of being a statement of black pride in the things that are unique to the culture and also a cry against appropriation. She’s not just asking you not to invade her personhood; she’s asking you not to invade her culture. The delivery of her vocals really sells this track as she (and Sampha on the choruses) remind those who are curious or seek to join that, while they are able to see the outward product, they will never really understand the origins or the meaning behind who black people are. Those words are not sung in anger; instead they are delivered as a simple statement of fact. The production on the track transitions between a minimalist soul sound for the verses and bridges before adding a little more energy with horns of the chorus. The amped sound makes sense as that is the only section of the song that gets confrontational about unheard (but predictable) response from the people she is addressing; that they cannot lash out at her in anger because she shows pride in herself. A standout track.
10. Interlude: This Moment – Master P gives a spoken interlude about the losses through gentrification and the overall loss of humanity a person feels when they are unseen by those who wield power over them.
11. Where Do We Go – Using what sounds like a Bennie And The Jets sample, Solange sings about the loss of community that comes when gentrification occurs or when those who long held a place in a community move away/are forced out. The repetition of the phrase where do we go from here on the chorus after verses that almost deceptively sound like people headed out for a night of fun and finding nothing gives a lonely feel to the otherwise warm sound of the track. It feels like not just the loss of a place to call home, but the loss of roots and proof of existence. The bounce of the beat is hard, but the track itself is slower, as if it were a trip down memory lane. Solange’s vocals are angelic here, making good transitions between her upper and mid-register tones. The adlibs towards the end are especially lovely, showing off the strength of her vocals without her having to blast out or oversing. A solid track.
12. Interlude: For Us By Us – Master P returns on a spoken interlude about knowing your worth and not selling yourself short as well as understanding that all things aren’t for all people.
13. F.U.B.U. – The production of this track is probably going to leave some listeners cold as it’s not a full fit for the melody that she sings over it, but it does work with the theme of the song, about trying to force some things that don’t fit together as well as feeling out of place because the things that you love/are aren’t appreciated or understood by wider society. Solange’s vocals are strong and passionate for this song as she sends out a call to all those who feel that they are lost or feel bad about wanting to keep a part of their culture for themselves to not be ashamed and to know that they can be proud of their heritage. This track combines the themes of Don’t Touch My Hair and Where Do We Go into a defiant rally of refusing to be pushed aside and refusing to have your contributions ignored. This is the only song that has a co-writer in The-Dream who, more than likely, wrote his own verse (Despite what some sources say, The-Dream does take the entirety of the verse he is on. BJ The Chicago Kid is featured on this track, but he provides the outro adlibs and some of the backing vocals.) This is also the first of a three tracks that doesn’t feature composition from Raphael Saadiq.
14. Borderline (An Ode To Self Care) – Teaming up with Q-Tip, Solange drops the second upbeat track to the collection. This time, she turns her introspective eye to her relationship with the one that she love…or at least used to. She fights with herself (and him to a certain degree) about whether or not to get off the fence and end the relationship. She sound sure about the decision to leave for most of the track and has good reasons for doing so, but she turns on a dime to deciding that going through the world alone and decides that the safety of what she has is worth fighting for. She spends the song going between these two positions, never getting off the borderline that she is desperate to find a resolution for. Of all the tracks on this album, this one feels like it’s the most out of place due to the subject matter of everything that preceded it. It’s still well composed and she and Q-Tip sound great harmonizing with each other and the break from the more heavily-subjected works may be needed for some, but the effect is a little jarring.
15. I Got So Much Magic, You Can Have It – This is a cute interlude that features Nia Andrews and Kelly Rowland having an impromptu singing session where they warn girls not to let anyone steal the magic that is them, but don’t also not be hid that magnificence and share it with those who may not have any to spare.
16. Junie – Featuring some undercover vocals by Andre 3000, Nia Andrews, and Kelly Rowland, Solange sings about that magic of talent. The combination of the four voices has an interesting effect as you would think they would be more powerful, but everyone takes a subdued route. Not that they sound disinterested, quite the contrary in fact, but the overall fullness of the harmonies is minimal for the vocal ability available. The third upbeat track on this set, this one is far less focused around the lyrical construction and more around the sound and feeling. Not that the lyrics are sloppy by any means, but there is definitely a desire to give the bounce of the theme in the overall mood of the song so the metaphors are not as flushed out as they are in previous tracks. The first half of the song is about being proud of the magic you possess, but the second half is about protecting it from those who want to take it from you. Solange has said that this song is about songwriter Junie Morrison, who likely inspired some of the work on the album, especially this song’s lyrical structure.
17. Interlude: No Limits – Master P speaks about the origin of the name of his label, No Limit Records.
18. Don’t Wish Me Well – Transitioning from a fairly bright-sounding album thus far, the production of this track adds some darker motes as she sings about not letting go of her convictions and voicing her truth…even if others don’t want to hear it. This is likely Solange’s best vocal performance on the album; her tone is strong and she sounds self-possessed, a perfect match for the theme. Given the darker sound of the production, you would think that her sweetheart tone would be a bad fit, but she gives attitude and tonal shifts in just the right places. While we get a little bit of an Aaliyah vibe from the overall delivery, it doesn’t feel like a copy as much as it does an inspiration. The lyrics of this track have gone back the prosaic style that she has used for the rest of the album and it feels like getting back on course after a detour. The shift to the more synthetic production tone after so much soul, R&B, and funk is a little jarring, but it’s also a bit of a welcomed change in that it shows a little something different without derailing the sound of the album.
19. Interlude: Pedastals – Master P remind us that the those we praise are just as fragile as we are and might just have their thumbs on the scale.
20. Scales – Over a gospel-like, off-kilter production, Solange and Kelela sing about how the world can hold different views of person based on where that person is and who is looking upon them. Telling the story of someone who could be Master P but could also be any other rapper or young man on the street, she speaks on how the trapping of success that he wants (grills, spinning rims, flashy jewelry) are looked down upon by those who do not hail from his streets. She also speaks on how those same trappings are being reassessed by a new generation, as they look at what he has and want it for themselves. This is another track that might leave some listeners cold as the joining between the beat and the melody is not one-hundred percent, but it again goes to theme. The vocals here are good but, in comparison to earlier tracks, it feels like this one ran out of steam a little early and it can be easy to tune out. The production is also a bit of snore as it plods along slowly and doesn’t really get any pickup at any point, staying static in it’s own resonance. It’s worth a few listens for the message, but this is the most skippable song on the album.
21. Closing: The Chosen Ones – It feels odd that Master P, and not Solange, is the one to have the final word on her album but his message is a powerful one; the struggle isn’t for nothing and that all that has been experienced is for a reason. They are words of hope for those who see the inequities of the world and feel put down because of them.
The four years that Solange has put into this album have proven well worth it as she has constructed something that speaks to a deeper need of the time but also has a timeless message. There are many ways that she could have approached what she did here, an album that centers around black empowerment, and so many ways that she could have diluted that message. Instead, what we get is an almost entirely cohesive work of art that not only shows Solange’s artistry to those who may have been unaware, but also continues to show the evolution of a black woman in the 21st century.