Music Review: Solange's "A Seat at the Table"

by Long Do | 10/14/16 12:00am

“I’m weary of the ways of the world,” Solange sings in her new release “A Seat at the Table.” The album cover, featuring a faded photo of the artist’s face, suggests a dark tone. Indeed, the music in this new release may not be as colorful as the celebrated “Losing You,” but “A Seat at the Table” brings detailed arrangement and articulate, powerful lyricism to the ­— no pun intended — table.

“A Seat at the Table” is musically gentle. Yet, the record sharply addresses black experience and denounces racism and sexism. One of the album’s standouts is “Don’t Touch My Hair” (feat. Sampha), in which Solange celebrates the personal, cultural and historical significance of her natural hair. In an interview with Judnick Mayard, Solange commented that the song is about “what it feels like to have your whole identity challenged on a daily basis.” Indeed, this R&B-funk track not only laments public appropriation of black women’s bodies but also deals with the devaluation of black culture in a broader sense. On another collaboration, “Mad” (feat. Lil Wayne), Solange calmly but convincingly breaks down the “angry black woman” stereotype. Solange closes the track by pointing to the lack of social acceptance when black people express anger at injustices: “But I’m not really allowed to be mad.”

The album carries strong political messages, but it also focuses on Solange’s individual experience. “Cranes in the Sky,” a fragile R&B ballad, reveals Solange’s personal struggles. Here, Solange discusses her efforts to escape “those metal clouds” with unexpected layer and detail — the background strings add a layer of melancholy to the track. “I tried to let go my lover. Thought if I was alone then maybe I could recover.” Her lyrics, while uncomplicated, are hauntingly impactful.

Like “Cranes in the Sky,” most songs in “A Seat at the Table” have an atmosphere of constraint. Solange’s composed vocals are tightened to sharp percussions; she hardly tries to break away. This deliberate withdrawal conveys the sense of desolation in “Where Do We Go” and the hopelessness in “Weary.” That being said, some of the album’s highlights come when the music opens up a little. “Don’t You Wait” is not uptempo, but its soft instrumentals keep the track moving. The track expresses Solange’s response when a music critic made offensive remarks about her work. There is both urgency and confidence in the way Solange sings “But I didn’t want to build the land that has fed you your whole life, no.” Placed at the end of the album, “Don’t Wish Me Well” keeps up the energy with its vivid, vibrating synth.

According to Solange, “A Seat at the Table” means “an invitation to allow folks to pull up a chair, get very close and have these hard uncomfortable truths be shared.” She succeeds in creating this feeling in the album, which is full of opinions and stories to be shared. Spoken interludes performed by Solange’s family and colleagues are cohesively incorporated in the album. For example, “Tina Taught Me,” an interlude performed by Solange’s mother, blends into the preceding track perfectly. While the songs tend to deliver their messages subtly, the interludes offer direct conversations. Ranging from personal anecdotes and optimistic encouragements to cogent myth-exposures, they enrich the album without disturbing flow.

Despite its empowering lyricism, the album takes a minimal approach in its music production. “A Seat at the Table” does not need more to captivate the listeners. The key here is the richness in detail. Solange never lets her messages empty out into vague slogans. They are always illustrated with sharp writing, real stories and raw emotions. This attention to detail is also apparent in the music. The similarity in tempo and genre cannot be mistaken for repetition. There is always a unique, almost latent element in each track that grips listeners. All of these qualities make “A Seat in the Table” an elaborate, coherent and powerful work, among the best of this year’s releases.

Best tracks: “Don’t You Wait,” “Cranes in the Sky,” “Don’t Wish me Well”

Rating: 4.5/5