Album Review: #1: Solange - A Seat at the Table
by Sarah Muhammad
As the year comes to an end, a reflection of the times can be seen buried deep within the lines and verses of this year’s music, exposing the emotions coursing through the veins those deeply affected. To express the thoughts and challenges of Black America specifically, is a task taken on daily by many artists alike. But to do so in the most masterful form takes poise, precision, and the flawless execution of storytelling. While her sister Beyoncé shows her take on the story in one way, Solange took a detour to more abstract land to create the best project of 2016 and called “The Blackest Album of the Year” by many, an album titled A Seat at The Table. A Seat at the Table is a story of many things: hurt, depression, joy, anger, magic, but the one thing that it is not is subtle or apologetic. The entire project takes a soulful, majestic tone throughout, riddled in endless metaphor, exposing completely the mind and experiences of Black life, complete with continuous interludes interspersed throughout from the singer’s own parents and No Limit Records founder, Master P. The album begins with “Rise”, a short song about embracing self-empowerment, and takes on a repetitive voice symbolizing the idea of being stuck in one’s ways and the question of if this will hinder them or keep them on track. The next track “Weary” is a very moody piece where Solange quite literally begins the song saying “I'm weary of the ways of the world/Be weary of the ways of the world”, reminding the listener that the feeling of being tiresome and somewhat numb to the state of the world is a shared commonality. “Cranes in the Sky” in a song circled in a heavy confrontation with grief and depression, as well as the emotion of hopelessness. In the song, Solange speaks of different ways that she tried to cope with her feelings (“I tried to drink it away...I tried to dance it away...Thought a new dress would make it better….I tried to keep myself busy/I ran around in circles/Think I made myself dizzy”), and how they all served as failed distractions from her real emotions. The ‘cranes’ references in the song refer to the analogy of metal cranes at construction sites and how they are always present, looming over you (“Well it's like cranes in the sky/Sometimes I don't wanna feel those metal clouds”), and how she sometimes just does not want to deal with the presence of her own emotions being inescapable. The song “Mad” is preceded by an interlude (“Dad Was Mad”) of her father telling his story of being a child growing up during the segregation period and how the tormenting that he experienced daily manifested into hatred and anger that stuck inside of him. “Mad” features a verse from Lil Wayne and tackles the subject of silencing Black anger for the things that they have experienced throughout history which have had a profound effect on their current circumstances (“I ran into this girl, I said, "I'm tired of explaining."/Man, this shit is draining/But I'm not really allowed to be mad”), taking initiative to bust through the stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’ and promoting self allowance to live in one’s emotions, even through the suppression pushed by the oppressors. Solange teams up with Sampha on the breakout track from the project “Don’t Touch My Hair”, a song tackling the uncomfortable issue of hair taboo that surrounds Black culture from those outside of it, namely Whites. The concept of touching Black hair without permission is used both literally and figuratively in this sense of invading the space of Black people and offending their freedom of expression (“Don't touch my hair/When it's the feelings I wear/Don't touch my soul/When it's the rhythm I know/Don't touch my crown/They say the vision I've found”). Furthermore, the song goes on to identify the defiance of trivialization of the matter by those who are unaffected (“They don't understand/What it means to me/Where we chose to go/Where we've been to know...You know this hair is my shit/Rolled the rod, I gave it time/But this here is mine”), and claims the pride that goes into Black beauty through hair and other forms of natural expression, and its importance in nonconformity to White standards of beauty. Falling under a similar territory, the song “F.U.B.U.” (For Us, By Us), is a fearless and audacious anthem for the Black community to take hold of their culture and having something for themselves. The idea for the song comes from the use of the word “nigga” by Whites when singing their favorite hip-hop song at the club or bar, a controversial act that is disturbing in the sense of an identity infiltration by those that want to be associated with the word to feel included. Solange specifically worded the chorus in a way to keep Whites and others from feeling comfortable to say the word in the context of the song (“All my niggas in the whole wide world/Made this song to make it all y'all's turn/For us, this shit is for us...Don't feel bad if you can't sing along/Just be glad you got the whole wide world/This us.This shit is from us/Some shit you can't touch”), boldly and unapologetically excluding those who can’t identify from joining in, just as Blacks are excluded and marginalized from many ways of life throughout history. The best composition feature on the album is found in the heavy track “Where Do We Go”, produced by Raphael Saadiq, with lively, loud piano melody under kicking percussion. The song deals with the disheartening occurrence of gentrification in the deep South and the singer gives a spirited ad chilling vocal with heavy vibrato, sending the listener into a deep feeling of solemnity. Other features and production credit on the album includes “Borderline (Ode to Self-Care)” with Q-Tip, “Junie” with Andre 3000, and “Scales” with Kelela. The final interlude on the album, features a New Orleans (Solange’s residence and Master P’s hometown) jazz style selection, performed with heavy horn, over Master P’s final message “Now, we come here as slaves, but we going out as royalty, and able to show that we are truly the chosen ones”, representing the end of his story about how he formed and sustained his business despite adversity, but also the overall message of the album, representing magic, strength, and solidarity of Black people. A Seat at the Table performs a daunting task of making Black inclusion imperative, hence the title, and is done so in a way which is artistically incomparable.
Best Tracks: “Where Do We Go”/“F.U.B.U”/ “Don’t Touch My Hair”
Best Production: “Where Do We Go”/“Mad”