Alongside regular collaborator Dev Hynes and the likes of Kelani and How To Dress Well, Solange Knowles has carved out an interesting position for herself on the periphery of the pop/R&B mainstream.
The densely layered, 21-track A Seat at the Table – her first full album since 2008 – doesn’t really change that. Even Losing You, the crowning glory of 2012’s Hynes co-produced True EP, has a sonic restlessness to it that makes it hard to pin down, while that sound – a sort of amalgam of late-80s pop and low-slung R&B – has since cropped up on albums by the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen. As Bustle pointed out, though Solange didn’t appear on sister Beyoncé’s Lemonade album, her influence is everywhere.
With only one song released since True – 2013’s knowingly titled Cash In, the last track from the Saint Heron compilation album she curated to “highlight and align a new movement of contemporary, genre-defying R&B visionaries” – Knowles is also not an artist to be rushed. A Seat at the Table is only her third album since her debut Solo Star (2003), but it’s an album that showcases a very different, much more socially aware and outward-looking artist. From her recent essay detailing the alleged racially-motivated abuse she and her family received at a Kraftwerk concert, to her support of the Black Lives Matter movement, A Seat at the Table – the title itself a nod to giving voice to the voiceless and creating a level platform for change – is imbued with a sense of trying to make sense of the world. Or, as she says in the press release, it’s “a project on identity, empowerment, independence, grief and healing”.
“I’m weary of the ways of the world,” opens the first song on the album. She sighs: “I’m tired.” So, while there’s anger and frustration throughout A Seat at the Table, it’s often presented calmly, almost matter-of-factly. Knowles’ honeyed voice, like her sister’s, rarely switches in tone, with the stately, vintage soul of Lil Wayne collaboration Mad delivering the line, “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” with the despondency of someone who’s had to say it too often.
There’s a great bit where, in one of the album’s many interludes, Knowles’ mum Tina delivers a brilliant, clear-headed speech on how celebrating blackness isn’t anti-white that segues straight into Don’t Touch My Hair (“… when it’s the feelings I wear”), a Sampha-assisted soft electro-funk throb that nails the reclamation of black identity.
Anyone hoping for another Losing You, or Sandcastle Disco from her undervalued Sol-Angel and the Hadley St Dreams album, is likely to be initially disappointed by A Seat at the Table. Clearly crafted to be listened to as a full album, songs segue into each other with the interludes helping to govern tone and move the album through its various moods.Its delicate anger and the measured way it unpacks a host of issues means you want to give it the time it deserves rather than demanding it reveal itself immediately. There’s a unique brilliance to that.