So Solange Knowles’ new album, A Seat At The Table – her third proper studio album and her fourth overall (including a 2012 EP) – was released last Friday to widespread critical acclaim (along with some petty panning) and a chance to début at the top of the Billboard album charts this week (for the first #1 album of her career).
As I publish this, Solange’s album was running neck-and-neck with Bon Iver’s latest for this week’s #1 spot, a feat that – if accomplished – would make Solange and a certain sibling the only two sisters to both have solo #1 albums on the Billboard 200.
A Seat At The Table, a 21-track celebration of the unconventional singer’s black heritage and more, was a small surprise the day it came out, as not much advanced public notice was given.
Those two factors – that its release date was a surprise and that it’s highly Afro-centric – are points that will likely draw unfortunate comparisons to that other Ms. Knowles whose similarly packaged latest album was released earlier this year. However, the similarities beyond that are few.
The differences, however, are several. And it’s those differences that many people likely won’t get, particularly when comparing the two sisters’ most recent efforts. For one, the older sibling’s album was more about a troubled personal relationship than it was the singer’s blackness (although that latter aspect certainly got the most negative pub – as the similar theme of the younger sibling’s certainly will).
Secondly, despite its more aggressive messaging and tone, Lemonade still has mainstream pop or R&B marketability, mainly because of the artist’s name, where the younger singer’s album has the feel of an artist still trying to find her “seat at the table,” even if it’s not the same table as her older sister.
Solange’s Table, however, boasts a wide array of collaborators ranging from ’90s hip-hop and alternative R&B icons to international producers and singer-songwriters that give the album some depth. It’s also more sparse in its production than the older sibling’s, giving it an almost old-school feel in many spots. Finally, whereas her older sister’s latest venture is mostly seen as experimentation with new ground, Solange is more at home with her avant-garde approach.
These distinctions won’t matter to some though. I’ve already seen the comments from haters: “The album doesn’t chart any new ground,” “it isn’t anything we haven’t heard before,” “you all falling for this fake, deep hipster bullshit,” “horrible choices for her collabs,” “if you wanna listen to some real alternative R&B, check out Maxwell’s new album., etc.”
Some have gone as far as to criticize the album cover itself, referring to the singer as “Sirlange” (likely a reference to her lack of makeup), or judging the many hair clips she sports in her long mane. It’s unfortunate that such shallowness is even allowed to be included in comments about an album’s musical content – something which the submitters likely would not have been able to examine on its own merits anyway.
Indeed, the album is unconventional. And Solange’s list of collaborators for this album are dubious enough to raise questions. Like, where did she find ’90s bohemian Raphael Saadiq after all these years? He cowrote and guests on several “Table” songs, including opening track, “Rise,” itself a joint written effort between the former Tony! Toni! Toné! lead-singer, Solange and Roots drummer Questlove, along with an array of other contributors. That track’s 1:41 length (including a deceptively long silent break in the middle) makes it more of a prelude than a full song, leading one to wonder why so many people had to contribute to make such a brief piece.
Another past-era contributor is ’90s New Orleans rapper Master P, who provides several spoken-word interludes (six in all). He isn’t the most eloquent speaker out there, but Solange wasn’t looking for eloquence. Still, having him contribute so much is a bit excessive. His takes were all likely recorded in one long interview broken into six parts, which means his messages are cohesive enough (and they certainly have legitimacy given the man’s up-from-the-bootstraps business credentials), and at least they’re in keeping with the album’s F.U.B.U. theme.
But six(!) Master P interludes certainly validates any concerns about collabo choices, or at least the number of contributions in P’s case. And the album’s nine interludes in all (ten if you count “Rise”) means there are only 11 true songs on an album being marketed as sporting nearly double that number of tracks. Two of the interludes are reserved for Solange’s parents, Mathew Knowles and Tina Lawson, both of whom give their take on being black in America. The two also serve as the album’s inspiration as Solange has said she dedicated it to them – almost justifying them a seat at the interlude table.
But interludes aside, the album is not half bad…certainly not as bad as some of the critics have suggested.
In fact, it’s pretty darn good.
Many of the songs would stand alone on an album that didn’t even have interludes, including the best track (and main course): “Don’t Touch My Hair,” featuring British electronic singer-songwriter Sampha Sisay. The song’s lyrics are a mix of direct and metaphorical admonishments of those who dare to violate black women in one way or another – with her (black woman’s) often-criticized hair serving as the sacrificial lamb in this case. The point is driven home by the refrain “What you say to me?,” beautifully delivered by Solange’s duet partner, Sampha.
The more uptempo – and nearly as good – “Don’t You Wait” is veiled in its own messaging to fans of her previous album, the EP “True.” That album had more of an indie-rock feel and it spoke mainly of romantic relationships lost and found. The message here: if you were waiting for another album like that or wanting her to stifle her pro-black message, particularly in these socially dangerous times for black America, don’t hold your breath.
Then there’s the stellar track, “Borderline (An Ode To Self Care),” with contributions from Q-tip and Timbaland, followed by the bouncy but good song, “Junie” featuring André 3000. Again, the collaborators are somewhat dated, but there are enough contemporary producers on the album to bring it back to 2016, including Nigerian producer Olugbenga Adelekan on the previously mentioned second-best track, “Don’t You Wait.”
Upon first listen, A Seat At The Table will come across as “hipster” to some, especially unenlightened traditional-R&B fans who believe that – unless your name is Janelle Monae or Frank Ocean – you shouldn’t be making alternative music like this.
Some may even raise the coat-tail question, especially in a year where the older, more well-known Ms. Knowles has already made a pro-black statement with an album release. To that I say, isn’t it possible that two people from the same family can be equally affected by what’s happening around them? And quite frankly nothing has changed socially for black folks in the mere five months since Lemonade dropped, it may have actually gotten worse (plus, we should note that this album was likely completed months ago anyhow). Should an artist intentionally go out of her way and rewrite the script simply because someone who happens to be her sister beat her to the punch? Heck, I’m surprised more artists than these two haven’t reflected their growing sense of pain in their art.
Or people will judge that she’s not treading new ground, when in reality this album is nothing like its predecessor, the 2012 EP, True. Its tone, tempo and themes are completely different. Table’s producers aren’t even the same as the earlier effort. Yes, both Table and True (and even the 2008 album, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams) can be classified as alternative R&B, which itself (alone) has been at the root of the no-growth criticism. But note to R&B fans: not all alternative R&B is hipster or sounds the same. In fact, it’s the variation in style – not to mention deviation from the norm – that make it alternative in the first place.
In truth, none of Solange’s albums have followed any particular formula, particularly the mainstream, garden-variety R&B formula that many consumers have been raised on for generations. And if she is to be criticized for that, especially in this socially and politically challenging era where people are preaching the importance of embracing diversity as we elect new leaders, can we at least cut this sister some slack for being herself: a nonconformist who is doing just that, embracing her diversity.
Especially within our own community?
Best Table tracks: “Don’t Touch My Hair,” “Don’t You Wait,” “Borderline (An Ode To Self Care),” “Junie,” “F.U.B.U.,” “Cranes In The Sky”