Albums of 2016 (#2): Solange – A Seat at the Table

A Seat at the Table is an enormously historical, deeply political record – if you’ve heard it you’ll know that, but it demands repeating a thousand times over

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 30 Nov 2016

Beneath the iced, slow-jam R'n'B held up by rubbery, liquid basslines, regal brass and Solange’s unmistakable range, a fire burns. The younger Knowles sister has been releasing albums for fourteen years, but A Seat at the Table clarifies her voice like no other. 

An iron-clad message put forward with soft, precise, perfectionist delivery, Solange uses spoken word interludes to drape her songs in extra-personal context. Her father speaks on his experiences as one of the first black children to integrate high school in Alabama, 'I was angry for years.'

“He made history,” Solange notes in an exclusive W Magazine interview. Her mother discusses the importance of pride, calling out so-called ‘reverse racism’, saying 'All we’ve ever been taught is white history. So, why are you mad at that? [...] That is to suppress me, and to make me not be proud.' No Limit Records' boss and family friend Master P describes running a major, black-owned label against offered buy-outs from corporate giants 'To being able to make Forbes and come from the Projects. You know, 'Top 40 Under 40', which they said couldn’t be done. [...] I tell people all the time, if you don’t understand my record, you don’t understand me, so this is not for you.’

Solange soaks in layers of context until A Seat at the Table is dripping with symbolism and self-awareness. Her words fall against a backdrop of personal and political history. The looming, gothic horror of metal clouds on Cranes in the Sky is an awe-inspiring metaphor for steeling a body against struggle. Initially, Solange attempts change through superficial means: 'I tried to dance it away / I tried to change it with my hair.' As the song grows, so does she: 'I tried to work it away / But that just made me even sadder,' culminating in 'I slept it away, I sexed it away / I read it away.' She finds growth within herself, having exhausted other external, or uncontrollable, routes.

On her Saint Heron website, there’s an interview titled ‘A Seat With Us’, between Solange, her mother Tina Knowles-Lawson and writer Judnick Maynard. In that conversation, Solange reflects that the record “is an invitation to allow folks to pull up a chair, get very close and have these hard uncomfortable truths be shared. It’s not going to be pretty, it’s not going to be fun, you may not get to dance to it, you’re not going to breath easily through it, but that is the state of the times that we’re in right now.”

Guest spots from long-term collaborators (Dev Hynes, Adam Bainbridge), iconic musicians (Kelly Rowland, Lil Wayne) and brand new faces (Moses Sumney, Nia Andrews) adds strength and texture to Solange’s methods, but these extra voices never once dilute her vision. The regal, glorious aesthetic behind her videos for Cranes in the Sky and Don’t Touch My Hair combines high fashion and home-made dresses, as well as a reported seventy locations throughout America. In an interview with Vogue, Solange describes her intentions: “I wanted to express an almost stately look for black men and women. I wanted to represent black sisterhood, strength, pride and elevate the black man and all of his beauty and glory. This was our way of contributing to that narrative.”

Mid-record, amid the glittering tragedy of Where Do We Go, she asks: 'Where do we go from here? Do you know?' Never has a question felt better timed. It’s possible that Solange’s story is not your story, and that this album is not 'for you' (as she explores on F.U.B.U.; 'This shit is for us') but whatever your background, your nationality or your political policies, you’d be wise to listen long, and listen hard.