One of this year’s biggest musical surprises has been Solange Knowles. Knowles is a well established talent who has lived in the shadow of her more famous sister Beyonce.
For her first two albums, Solange’s music was somewhere between the sophisticated flower girl template established by alt soul artists like Amel Larrieu and the carefree youthful pop of Alexis Jordan. Even at it’s worst it was smile inducing dance pop that was usually pleasant at at times brilliant (Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams). Under all that catchy dance pop was a bigger talent just waiting in the background to be heard.
For the socially aware pop star, the plastic bubbles of social media and celebrity worship can crack, revealing anger and introspection. Current social and political events in themselves have been enough to eat away at the ease and calm of business as usual. This is where Solange has stepped up her art, dragging alt soul out of it’s complacent flower power funk. Few artist can do this with the ease and calm of an urban sophisticate like she has.
Mainstream rap and R&B seem too intellectually challenged to respond to issues like police violence, black disenfranchisement etc., so alternative R&B seems to have found new purpose as a form of protest. As the new voice of the angry black sophisticate, artist like Solange just might get noticed by mainstream audiences – however fractured they might be in today’s stream everything or buy-by-the-song culture.
For Solange, personal and public events have conspired to sharpen the focus of her third album A Seat at the Table. The same events may have have influenced her famous sister’s album Lemonade. Interestingly Solange’s solution manages to add substance to her songs while maintaining the veneer of the dreamy easy going soul sister.More Esperenza Spalding than Lianne La Havas, there’s very little that’s easy in the message of A Seat at the Table.
As it’s title implies, Solange makes a number of strong statements about the state of being Black in America today, even down to the sensitive subject of Black girl hair (“Don’t Touch My Hair”). Interestingly, she uses slow methodical funk and ballads to make the strongest points.
The pointed and deliberate piano on “Where Do We Go” recalls Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets”. Like Mary J. Blige‘s treatment of that rift, Solange uses a similar sounding rift to convey a certain amount of pint up anger and frustration. The funkiness of it all hides the fact that this just might be one of the few R&B songs you’ll ever hear about urban gentrification. Towards the albums end, “Scales” paints a strong image of the fantasy connection between blacks and sports stardom. It’s a sad statement set against Solange’s wonderful voice.
Although the album is mostly about heavy subject matter, it’s not always gloomy. “Junie” has a bouncy retro-soul chorus that is reminiscent of some of Solange’s earlier, less pointed work. “Don’t You Wait” is another upbeat track with some surprising melody twists. There is also a bit of humor (depends on your point of view). “Don’t Touch my Hair” features a delicate vocal by Moses Sumney (who likely has his own don’t touch my hair stories).
Not all of the material is strictly about the state of Black America or it’s issues. “Weary” explores deep feelings of loneliness and was respired by the loss of her grandparents. This song along with the beautiful “Cranes in the Sky” count as some this season’s best new music. The twisting tempos, beautiful chorus and a catchy melodies sprinkled between uplifting monologues (from her parents) makes it one of the best albums I’ve heard this year.
Produced by Raphael Saadiq, A Seat at the Table includes other contributions from from Q-Tip, Andre 3000 and Lil Wayne among others. The diverse roster of collaborators is part of what give this album it’s nuanced dimension without sounding disjointed. Normally I loathe Lil Wayne’s music, but he actually makes a memorable contribution to “Mad”, that compliments it’s street smart beat and pointed protest.
Solangs takes difficult subject matter and turns it into a beautiful collection of songs. While heavy at times, it is broken up interesting interludes that strengthen it’s central points. Those points may not be understood by everyone, but that might be the real difference between A Seat at the Table and her sister’s Lemonade, another noteworthy alternative R&B album. This is clearly the better album from any of the Knoles sisters.