Solange-A Seat at the Table: Album Review

Just in time for the SNL performance haha

Solange Knowles has truly come into her own on “A Seat at the Table” and although her character arch avoids the grandeur of her sister, her message remains no less powerful.  A 21 track neo-soul masterpiece, the album follows an extraordinarily well-constructed narrative with a fair share of standout tracks providing peaks of excitement amongst Solange’s intimate minimalism.  Biting political messages come to surface as Solange discusses her various intersectional experiences as a black woman in the United States.

The flow of the album thrives heavily on Solange’s poignant narrative.  General themes reign throughout, but the ideas presented generally flow into one another making for a logical progression.  “Rise” kicks off the album with simple vocals Solange’s confidence in her own success.  Next, “Weary” provides a slight rebuttal to the message of “Rise” as Solange discusses the necessity to avoid naivety and remain “weary of the ways of the world.”  The first interlude hearkens slightly back to “Rise,” again emphasizing a self-confidence, thus somewhat wrapping up the first theme of confidence amongst adversity.

“Cranes in the Sky” may be the first hint of stand-alone appeal, with a heart wrenching chorus complimented by somber synths and a particularly animated pallet of backing vocals.  The introspective theme rides along Solange’s many attempts to make herself happy to no avail.  Sadness then turns to anger with an interlude about the circumstances that drive black people to be angry at the world that has been presented to them.

Bluntly titled “Mad” builds on this theme with Solange breaking down the archetype of the “angry black woman” by justifying her frustrations.  In particular, Solange discusses the tendency for people who do not understand her struggle to accept her anger, but only in the right circumstances: “You got the right to be mad/But when you carry it alone you find it only getting in the way.”  This is certainly an important message today as people—especially in the United States—are generally willing to recognize racism, yet certain lines are drawn when people of color actually try to take action to reverse the damage of the past.  Once again, Solange pulls a bit of this idea and incorporates it into the next track, “Don’t You Wait,” which addresses white audiences of her music.

Based on an interview with Saint Heron, Solange’s alternative/indie-tinged sound on her last EP led to accusations of “biting the hand that feeds” from a reporter on a New York Times Podcast after Solange had commented on the way white audiences digest and write about R&B.  Solange directly addresses this comment in the song and reminds her audience of the black influence on pop culture: “Now, I don’t want to bite the hand that’ll show me the other side, no/But I didn’t want to build the land that has fed you your whole life, no.”  This response also emphasizes the fact that Solange is going to include messages about the black experience even if they may seem to oppose white listeners.  Whereas “Mad” showcases white people accepting Solange’s anger about the world, but not her actions; “Don’t You Wait” shows how white audiences digest black music, but disregard the political messages that inhabit the artists that make it.

The rest of the album continues the cohesive flow of ideas and message with “Don’t Touch My Hair,” “F.U.B.U,” and “Don’t Wish Me Well” standing out as highlights.  Lead single “Don’t Touch My Hair” depicts a specific microaggression faced by black women, who are oftentimes confronted with compliments about their hair, which are followed by people touching their hair without consent.  Considering the historical context of black hair, this action can have really negative consequences.  The anthemic ending aims to uplift with the question “what you say to me” looping over a bouncing bass line and luscious horns.

Following a tune about gentrification and an interlude about black excellence and self-worth, “F.U.B.U.” makes a statement about black culture.  The title of the song has a double meaning, one being “for us by us” with the acronym “Fubu” referencing a brand heavily associated with black communities.  A chorus reading “this shit is for us” suggests that certain things are meant to resonate with black people.  Also, considering the anti-gentrification message that precedes the track, the emphasis on specifically black culture may serve to counter white interference, suggesting that black communities are beautiful on their own and although non-black people may appreciate them, interfering can result in problematic consequences.

Sonically speaking, the album can be a bit monochromatic.  The instrumentals are—to some degree—all put together in the same way and Solange is certainly a quite figure, remaining in the same dynamic place on many tracks.  Perhaps this is a bit due to the interludes, which help to push along the narrative of the work, but occasionally obstruct the momentum of the sonic material.  Their elimination would obviously change the experience a great deal, however, bigger climaxes might arise with more stand-out dance hits.  As it stands, the slight sonic monotony doesn’t completely hinder the emotional impact of the work.  Solange’s emotions are truly all out the line throughout and although her backing track can be a bit open, her personality still commands the entirety of the work.

“A Seat at the Table” is an expansive glance at the Solange’s life.  Chock full of spoken-word interludes, the album somewhat requires a front-to-back experience, but the dependence on narrative still leaves room for dance-able singles and memorable hooks making for a solid addition to the neo-soul experience.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10 Solid Album


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