Review: Solange, A Seat at the Table

By drawing from past styles, struggles, and successes, the younger Knowles sister tells a thoughtful tale of modern black hardship and the conversation that comes with it
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There is something to Solange Knowles’ artistry that recalls the craft of origami cranes. Though the “cranes” present in the fourth track on Knowles’ latest, A Seat at the Table, are of the construction variety, paper cranes come to mind through the level of intricacy and care saturated into this project. In the same way origami’s complexity portrays a visual and cultural piece of Japanese history, A Seat at the Table displays a thoughtful, composed, and layered look at black culture and the black experience. Fold-by-fold, it comes together with precision, tranquility, and beauty—a testament to Knowles’ ability to imbue her music with skill as much as culture.

At a time when we saw the daughter of a former slave open the first National Museum of African American History, we see here another daughter giving a voice those who taught her how to use hers. Through the words of her collaborators, heroes, and her parents, Knowles brings us back to tragedies and discriminations which still live on in the memories of black and white America.

Knowles revealed to Fader that the record took four years to make, and that span of time is felt throughout in its patience and calm demeanor. The album celebrates her R&B heroes, giving it a sense of protectiveness that contributes to Solange’s meticulous attention to detail. Her recordings play as a brilliant tribute to black musicianship, from D’Angelo’s lush instrumentations to Janet Jackson’s soothing coos. She herself soars like the cranes she sings of, reaching the stratospheres of Kelela and FKA Twigs for a lovely airshow of vocals. The lightness of her voice must not be taken for gentleness, however, for Knowles possesses a knack for lyricism capable of the softest of touches and the sharpest of jabs. With her piano as a base, Knowles further fleshes out her arrangements by incorporating elements of jazz, soul, and hip-hop for a relaxing sound not unlike King’s 2016 debut We Are King.

All this comes together to give Knowles her seat at the table, a foundation she claims early on. “He said ‘Where does that leave you?’ and ‘Do you belong?’/ I do, I do” she asserts in the percussive, rousing “Weary”, baring her teeth and her soul in defiance of the “kings” of the world. It is this realization, that “we’re putting people on a pedestal that’s just human like us”, which arches over the record, a truth Knowles directs at others and at herself as a form of release and healing.

Each sexist dismantled and each racist disproved leads to an inverse positive assertion by Knowles. She knows that to build her confidence she must deconstruct the falsehoods made about her. Her denouncement of the “angry black woman” trope on “Mad” conversely validates both her own feelings and experiences as a woman of color who has every right to be heated about having her culture taken and her hair touched. And when someone reaches for those locks, she retaliates through “Don’t Touch My Hair”, which grows from a tense R&B rebuke to a soulful fanfare assisted by Sampha’s emotive yelps. Knowles makes it very clear what others may see as a petting zoo is actually her pride, and such disrespect will not be tolerated. Additional testimony to the previously mentioned black frustration also receives a male outlet, from a vibrant verse by Lil Wayne on “Mad”, while its prelude, “Dad Was Mad”, features none other than Matthew Knowles: “that was my childhood/ I was angry for years”. A Seat at the Table is nothing if not inclusive, and that also includes gender.

But retaliation isn’t the album’s only tool; self-reflection and self-love allow Knowles additional forms of therapy and instill the record with casual, groovy arrangements. “Cranes” sonically flies high only to lyrically dig deep at Knowles’ flaws, a confrontation that gives her the confidence to eventually stick up for her hair and herself in later tracks. This attention to her character returns again in “Borderline (An Ode to Self-Care)”, but here, Knowles understands that as “more than a woman” (an homage to R&B’s baby girl) she needs to take the time to direct that care inward. Therefore, by the time you reach the bouncy, Prince-like “Junie”, Knowles sheds inhibition to wear her confidence on her sleeves, and playfully rebukes the stereotypes placed on her: “Don’t wanna do the dishes/ just wanna eat the food.” In the same way activist Audre Lorde compared “self-preservation” to “political warfare,” Solange Knowles uses self-love as a form of resistance against convention and prejudice.

Knowles highlights the benefits and repercussions of this struggle in ways that are both positive and negative. The declaration of “F.U.B.U” (“For us, by us”), featuring the talents of The-Dream, BJ the Chicago Kid, and Rostam Batmanglij, affirms the resilience of black culture throughout history, which contributes to its influence on a worldwide scale. Towards the LP’s close, Knowles conjures another figure born of this culture, expertly depicted with Kelela’s help in “Scales”. Here, blackness presents a source of conflict for the protagonist; while he identifies with and finds strength in his blackness, the world’s perception of his skin color dictates how his character’s life unfolds: “Your world is kind/but your world ain’t blind”.

In spite of hardship, the blackness of A Seat at the Table never breaks but bends, and such creases led to its elaborate, layered creation. Though the album recounts struggle, it asks for empathy instead of pity. Though at times it rages, it also rebukes division and seeks dialogue. In the same way black art is enriched by its complicated history, A Seat at the Table shines due to Knowles’ unwavering commitment to her own complexity, both musically and personally. You won’t pin her down on the first, second, or third listen, but each listen will give you a better understanding as to why you never will. A MINUS