Solange's 'A Seat at the Table’ Rejoices in the Glory of Survival
The artist's personal third album provides a safe haven from the noise of the world.
A Seat at the Table, for those who are unfamiliar, is Solange's third studio album. As the mother of the Knowles clan put it, it serves as a "trip into being Black and proud in America." For all that it contains, A Seat at the Table is not a sad album. It has moments of grief and existentialism, but it also includes a call for cultural ownership ("Junie"), a nod of validation for the angry and the Angry Black Woman ("Mad"), and an emotional outpouring of love for one's identity, ("Interlude: Tina Taught Me.") There have been many 2016 projects that grapple with the tumultuous state of being of Black peoples in America,—Jamila Woods' HEAVN, Isaiah Rashad's The Sun's Tirade, Noname's Telefone, Mick Jenkins' The Healing Component, Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book, her big sister's Lemonade, to name a few—and Solange's long-awaited album is a beautiful addition to their sonic snapshot.
It can be especially difficult to create as a Black artist without being categorized, both in terms of genre and various classifications made on your behalf. A Seat at the Table directly defies that urge, instead providing a credits list that reads more as a vision board than a chasing of any one sound, moment or aesthetic quality. The album features a frustrated and transparent Lil Wayne on "Mad," an open refutation of masked emotions. In his two verses, he touches on his highly publicized issues with Cash Money, Xanax and loneliness, incarceration and suicide. Snippets of a conversation with Master P, a New Orleans native and self-made legend, tie the album together, offering his perspective on his own career, Black artistic worth, perseverance, both individually and in a greater sense. Even Matthew Knowles shares stories of his childhood on his own interlude, a living testament to the little advancement from perceptions of old, resolved American problems to modern, pressing American anti-blackness. Solange calls on Q-Tip, The-Dream, BJ the Chicago Kid, Sampha, and Raphael Saadiq as additional male collaborators, all adding their own touch to its final production. Even the visuals for "Cranes in the Sky" and "Don't Touch My Hair" by Solange and Alan Ferguson, her husband and director extraordinaire, are proof of her vision unfolding, a portrayal of Blackness that is as striking as it is real, with Black women at its center.
A Seat at the Table is an album that is indisputably Black, inspired with and by sociopolitical issues that affect Black peoples. It is just as much an album that is tender, punctuated by Solange's femininity, firm assertion in who she is and what has informed that over the years. Tweet appears on three tracks: "Weary," "Mad," and "F.U.B.U." It's only when listening to the songs for a second (or third, or fourth…) time that her vocals are detectable to the R&B fan's ear, melting seamlessly into the piano and percussion that backdrop most of the tracks on the album. It's no secret that Solange is a massive fan of R&B and the people who make up the genre's most formative contributions; her critique of New York Times' Jon Caramanica's comments first about Brandy, and then Solange herself, went viral within moments of her sending them, now famously referred to as a "clapback," or "rant," rather than defense of the work of Black women, many of which are her peers and loved ones. Her collaboration with so many R&B powerhouses on A Seat at the Table is at once an acknowledgement of their professional accomplishments, as well as a celebration of the inherent Blackness of the genre. Kelela, one of the newer voices on the album, shines on "Scales," a song about Black boys who prematurely grow into Black men. Both singers are obviously Black women, but the texture with which they address Black masculine experiences reveals an intimacy of a deep, known truth, shared without words. "Always shining in the night, and your skin glowing in the moonlight," they harmonize together before Kelela closes out the track solo. Her final words are chilling; to exist in the world as a Black person is to be tasked with the burden of gaze on your body, its assumed criminality. "Your love is kind," she assures. It's not your fault. But the precocious nature of Black life is to know death before embarking on its journey.
A Seat at the Table is purposefully dense. It is meant to be heard in full, uninterrupted, and surrounded by the ultimate fruits of labor: love and respect. Where Solange's vocals drift impossibly higher and higher, her words ground the heaviness of their intention. On "Weary," the second of 21 tracks, Solange starts on a quest to look for her body, her voice already fading, one foot out the door. Weaved into the lyrics is a reference to the title of her Saint Heron-penned essay, "And Do You Belong? I Do," which she wrote after being attacked by two white women seated behind her and her family at a concert. The essay's impact is in its resonance; Solange wrote about being a Black woman to a ready audience of Black girls and women, most of whom understood with little need for explanation. Where critiques of her writing style and literary strength were discussed by the periphery of her intended demographic, Solange's ability to shrug it off, unbothered, solidified her original intention.
In the second refrain of "Weary," Solange's goal changes; it is glory that she seeks now. Maybe she's forgoing her physical self for higher attainment. Maybe she's found closure. She asks again: Where does that leave you? Nine tracks later, exactly midway through the album, she asks another question: where do we go, and what comes next? It is from here on out that Solange leaves the world, focusing on a universe of her own conception. "All my niggas in the whole wide world," she sings with a smirk of my imagination. "Some shit is a must. This shit is for us… Oh, to be us." The song oozes confidence, all rightful reclamation and promises of rewarded hustles. The five-song run from "F.U.B.U." to "Junie" are pure joy, a glimpse into a utopia of Blackness. Everything—the music, the language, the dress, the community, the feeling— is ours, and Solange (and The-Dream, BJ the Chicago Kid, Q-Tip, Kelly Rowland and Nia Andrews) do their best to drive that point home. Literally, with nary a trace of hyperbole: this whole shit is ours.
A Seat at the Table ends perfectly with an interlude, a sort of monologue of Master P's final revelation. "Sometimes you ask yourself, 'where's the peace?'," he questions, his voice the softest its been. "Everybody always talkin' bout peace, but as long as you find peace in what you doing, then you successful…" He pauses for a moment, carefully choosing his next words. "You gotta do stuff to where you can sleep at night. 'Cause the glory… Is in you." More than pain and sadness, A Seat at the Table is about triumph and ordinary regality. Of the glory of survival. And how sweet it is, indeed.
Amani Bin Shikhan is a writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.