Solange’s “A Seat at the Table” merges the personal and the political
Kelly McGarry | Wednesday, November 2, 2016
On her third full-length album, Solange proves that she is not outshined by anyone. The work shows Solange coming into her own skin, shedding gimmicks and expectations. Taken in a personal sense, the title “A Seat at the Table” signifies Solange finding her place in the music industry. But, subtly reminiscent of Langston Hughes’ poem “I, Too,” the title encompasses more than just Solange’s personal journey.
The album’s brief opener “Rise,” smooth with layered vocals and sweet piano, sets the tone of subversion. “Fall in your ways, so you can crumble. Fall in your ways, so you can wake up and rise,” the track repeats. The message is change, but she delivers it with destruction at the forefront.
Spoken interludes are scattered throughout the album without feeling like interruptions. The first, spoken by iconic rapper and entrepreneur Master P, focuses on the individual. “As long as you can find peace in what you’re doing, then you’re successful,” he says, leading into standout track “Cranes in the Sky,” which delivers peaceful harp and piano melodies over a story conveying anything but personal peace.
Though the nuance is present from the start, it is not until the interlude spoken by Solange’s father that the album is set up explicitly as a racial and political commentary. In “Dad was Mad,” Matthew Knowles describes his experience with the transition out of segregation in Alabama, and confesses, “I was angry.”
The interlude sets up the track “Mad,” on which Lil Wayne delivers an unexpectedly earnest verse. Though Solange’s airy vocals convey total composure, the lyrics seek to justify suppressed anger: “I’m really not allowed to be mad,” she croons, but lowers her voice to affirm, “I got a lot to be mad about.”
“Don’t Touch My Hair” paints a brilliant metaphor for the intimate and personal. Supported by the emphasis on hairstyle in the music video, Solange ties the discussion of black women’s hairstyles into her political argument.
Again on “F.U.B.U.” the musically serene is blended with more aggressive messages. The explicit lyrics in this track come as a surprise compared to the relative lack of explicits throughout the album. The possible offensiveness of the lyrics give a complementary argument to the “for us, by us” message. If you don’t like it, Solange isn’t making this music for you.
Though a similar rhythm persists through the album, the groovy bass-heavy track “Junie,” a collaboration with Andre 3000, crushes any risk of R&B monotony. The song is a tribute to funk legend Junie Morrison, who commented on the album, saying, “I believe that Solange has a great talent for representing and promoting freedom — freedom to be outwardly and inwardly creative.” The tribute incorporates the history of black music into Solange’s discussion.
On “A Seat at the Table,” Solange manages to merge history with the present and the personal with the political. After several years of effortful production, the result is musically understated yet thematically unapologetic, a multi-faceted portrait of what it means to be a black woman.
Tracks: “Mad,” “Cranes in the Sky”
Label: Saint and Columbia Records
If you like: Janelle Monae, Kelly Rowland