Album cover courtesy of Solange
Review by Rodell Jefferson
A Seat at the Table dropped on my birthday. I have been black for 20 years now with no signs of stopping. Solange Knowles’ new album taps into the experience that is blackness — an experience that is all at once painful and beautiful and exhausting and liberating.
This is my first time listening to a Solange project, but the curiosity has always been there. Solange described her last EP, True, as an effort to provoke joy and challenge what we know as pop music.
Solange’s new album, however, is meant to provoke healing and self-empowerment. “Walk in your ways, so you can sleep at night / Walk in your ways, so you will wake up and rise,” Solange sings on “Rise,” the opening track. Placing her own black female identity on the forefront, the lyrics throughout the album sound deeply intimate at times, as if taken right out of Solange’s diary. In other, less personal moments, Solange’s silvery voice drips with insightful cultural analysis.
A Seat at the Table is a neo soul album. The instrumentation is often light, allowing Solange’s delicate voice to glide gracefully over the tracks. Her voice is clear — so clear in fact, that at times it sounds as if she is simply having a conversation with her listeners. The album is a smooth listen, being careful not to rush along the narrative. With that said, I most enjoyed the album when I, myself, was unrushed in my own time and space.
The 21 track album is strung together with interludes. Songs stream seamlessly into small moments of narrative and explanation touching on various topics. On “Interlude: Tina Taught Me,” Solange’s mother speaks about pride in being black. Elsewhere, Solange calls in Master P — whom she sees as a symbol of black empowerment and independence — to encourage “finding peace in what you doing.” Interludes can often add unnecessary clutter to an album experience, but in this case they provide depth and flow between the tracks.
In an interview with The Fader, Solange explains that she feels as if the album wrote itself. “Lyrically, everything that came to me on this record was directly influenced by my personal journey,” she says, “but also the journey of so many people around me.”
Standout track and one of my own favorites, “F.U.B.U.,” is arguably the album’s peak of unapologetic blackness. “All my niggas in the whole wide world / Made this song to make it all y’all’s turn / For us, this shit is for us,” the chorus chimes. Titled after the fashion brand F.U.B.U., meaning “For Us By Us,” every part of the album seems to be working towards the theme of empowerment. “F.U.B.U. exhibited Blackness in any space, on a huge global level, and that is what I wanted to do with the song,” Solange explains to Saint Records.
It’s hard to discuss Solange’s album without also discussing her sister Beyoncé, and the shadow that she casts as the most successful person in today’s music industry. When asked about comparisons to her sister Beyoncé’s album, LEMONADE, she says that it should not be surprising that two people “very, very aware…of all the inequalities and the pain and suffering of our people right now, would create art that reflects that.”
A Seat at the Table and LEMONADE, while complimentary in many ways, are two different albums by two different artists. Solange’s album is far more enjoyable when examined within the beautiful lane that it carves for itself, rather than thought of as a LEMONADE spinoff. But, by all means, take some time to relish in the fact that we have so many black women creating profoundly meaningful projects.
A Seat at the Table is thorough, polished, and ultimately an album about Solange — about being a black woman in America in 2016. Whether that be the frustrations voiced on “Mad,” the vulnerability and defiance expressed on “Don’t Touch My Hair,” or the love and intimacy found on “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care).” Solange presents us with an album that is complex and wide-ranging, not unlike the experience of blackness itself.
Despite being an album that follows so closely to Solange’s personal life, much of it will sound and feel familiar to the right ear. All in all, A Seat at the Table is an engaging listen for anyone that gives it a spin, especially if you’re looking for some twinkle to your melanin.