Solange's A Seat At The Table: Sonic document of black experience in America in 2016
Perhaps the reason that Solange is remembered by most readers, is for the leaked videotape, now scrubbed from the internet, where she can be seen in an elevator with her sister and her husband. Of course her sister is Beyoncé Knowles and the man that the superstar is married to is Jay-Z. In the video, Solange can be seen raining punches and kicks on the rapper, while Beyoncé looks on. Does it have something to do with Jay-Z’s rumoured affair with, "Becky with the good hair”? It could.
Family drama aside, Solange is sure to dislodge that memory, with the release of her album A Seat at the Table, as she has created a stunning sonic document of the black experience in America in 2016. The album follows a joyous 2012 EP, True, that featured summery pop, and glittering synths that could brighten anyone’s mood. Prior to True, she had released two albums, her 2003 debut Solo Star, and Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dream, which she put out in 2008.
A Seat at the Table, has moments of lightness, like the two highlights ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ and ‘Cranes in the Sky’, but for the most part, the album is a meditation, that manages to illuminate what life is like inhabiting a black woman’s body today. Individual songs jump out at you, but heard as a whole, the album takes on a weight that is at odds with its gossamer tone. Both the aforementioned songs also have videos, which were released the day after the album. Those short films, which feature protracted gazes and top shots of Solange and others occupying space, manage to seem both longer than necessary, and yet almost meaningless. But in 2016, when Black Lives Matter, the election of Donald Trump to President and more are roiling the US, the act of occupying space and claiming one’s heritage can make for radical images that use the simplicity of filling the camera lets with political power.
That political power carries over to its songs, which are broken up by interludes that among other things, detail her parent’s individual experiences with racism (on two separate spoken word snippets) alongside other voices like those of Master P, the musician and entrepreneur. On ‘F.U.B.U’, Solange creates a world for “all my niggas”, and addresses those that can’t sing along, “Don’t feel bad if you can’t sing along/Just be glad you got the whole wide world,” pointing out the structural inequality in which African-Americans have to live. These observations pepper an album that manages to sound like multiple waves crashing into the shore, with songs cresting before slowly dissipating, each reminding listeners whether through its musical influences (the music of Aaliyah and Erykah Badu both come to mind) or the lyrics about a black woman’s place in the world, and the silent power that she’s been capable of commanding. In many ways, the album reflects the letter that Solange penned, on her record label’s website in September, which discussed the antagonism she faced when out at a Kraftwerk concert.
A Seat at the Table starts with the almost church-like intonations of ‘Rise’, before moving onto the staccato beats of ‘Weary’ where Solange’s soul-indebted voice shines. The album manages to bring together an array of writers and producers who are well known in their own right. Dirty Projector’s Dave Longstreth, TV On the Radio’s Dave Sitek, Majical Cloudz’s Devon Walsh and Matthew Otto, Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove, and Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend are some of the names that have worked as either writer or producer on the album. Lending their voices to specific songs are Lil Wayne, Sampha and Kelala.
‘Scales’, which features Kelala, is a soulful examination of the symbols that are held up as signs of success in black culture — like jewellery and more, and the inherent difficulty in earning the respect of your family and peers, while also being financially successful. The contradictions that are faced by members of the African-American community, especially its men are brought to the fore.
That the album can be consumed piece-meal as a collection of singles, or as a whole, is a testament to Solange’s vision. Ultimately, the album serves as a mirror — for African Americans whose paradoxes aren’t seen by the world at large, and by the privileged, who don’t realise how lucky they are.