“Ain’t nothing really R&B about me,” Solange Knowles proclaimed on “Fuck the Industry”, her 2008 screed against the music industry. Appended to a fuming blog post, the track was a preemptive strike against what Solange felt was a misguided approach to marketing her album, Sol-Angel and the Hadley Street Dreams, which was only weeks away. The statement was more polemic than descriptive, but its sentiment was clear: Solange refused to be defined on someone else’s terms, even if it meant dismissing years of her own songs and writing credits. The album itself held the same sentiment, reproducing, almost too faithfully, the sounds of Motown and ’70s soul, but Solange’s overall ambitions were clear. Quite simply, she wanted the power to define herself. Eight years later, she has finally succeeded. No longer stuck orbiting her superstar sister (Solange used to be a backup dancer for Destiny’s Child) or so doggedly trying to escape that orbit (see: “God Given Name”), Solange has found her space.
Less of a step up and more of a settling-in, A Seat at the Table features Solange at casual, intimate ease. Her vocals are cozy and warm, always inclusive, supportive. “You got the right to be mad,” she coos on “Mad”. “For us, this shit is for us,” she insists on “F.U.B.U.”, resuscitating the clothing line’s original ethos. “You’re leaving not a trace in the world/ But you’re facing the world,” she encourages on “Weary”. This vein of palliating warmth is clearly just in the air this year: Solange’s concerted calm shares visible ideological DNA with the psychedelic theatrics of Esperenza Spalding’s D+Evolution, the divine hope of Jamila Woods’ HEAVN, and the sensual grooves of Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound, all of which affirm the importance of black life. But Solange’s affirmation is articulated a bit differently. More than just a needed sedative, A Seat at the Table is a concrete reckoning with history. Solange’s father, Matthew Knowles, revisits integrating Alabama schools in the ’60s on “Interlude: Dad Was Mad”. Lil Wayne describes a failed suicide attempt on “Mad”. Solange’s mother, Tina Lawson, laments the absurd fallacy of reverse racism on “Interlude: Tina Taught Me”. At every turn, A Seat at the Table actively tethers itself to frighteningly recent trauma, Solange’s hope deriving its strength directly from the proximity of despair.
Standout track “Don’t Touch My Hair” gives those traumas a physical vessel. Channeling an anxiety that’s been festering for centuries, Solange connects black women’s hair to privacy and personhood. “You know this hair is my shit,” she declares, her rage unfurling then shrinking away, like a stretched curl. The 2013 art exhibit “You Can Touch My Hair” covered this same subject with an no-questions-asked detachment. For Solange, there is only one question. “What you say to me?” she chants alongside Sampha, insulted by the mere thought that her hair could be public property.
Solange frequently posits ownership and rootedness as beacons of triumph. There’s a subtle pride radiating from the interviews with her parents. And FUBU is repurposed in all its symbolic glory, not a snicker heard. But the greatest admiration is given to Master P. Snippets of an interview with him are placed throughout the album, his heavy voice lifted by mellow piano chords (“Interlude: The Glory Is In You”) and victorious trumpets (“Interlude: The Chosen Ones”). Solange clearly sees P’s signature label, No Limit, as the template for her own label, Saint Records, but there’s complexity to her reverence. The sprawl that characterized No Limit — which expanded its empire into film, sports, and Foot Lockers, among other industries — is contained. “Where Do We Go” proceeds cautiously, the percussion pounding but slow, the future yearned for but dreaded. “This used to be ours,” Solange laments, alluding to both gentrification and the specter of black failures, her ambitions curtailed by the reality of her citizenship.
A Seat at the Table can be a bit monotone. Solange’s True EP had a wide assortment of sounds and a greater sense of color that this album’s dour chords and redolent horns can’t quite match. Plus, the interludes are all derived from the same sonic template as the songs, so the borders between tracks can be hazy, giving the album a meandering feel. That said, ultimately there’s something refreshing about Solange’s dreary, almost funereal compositions. Earlier in her career, Solange defined herself by what she was not. Here she evades definition entirely, bolted steadfast to the burden of the past, but stubbornly careening toward the future, life through death. Solange is R&B as hell.
Essential Tracks: “Don’t Touch My Hair”, “Mad”, and “F.U.B.U.”