Solange’s New Album is a Homecoming Like No Other
'When I Get Home' is an intimate exploration of her Houston roots and black heritage.
Photo by Dia Dipasupil/WireImage
Solange closed her last album, A Seat at the Table, with a special message from New Orleans rap mogul Master P. “You know, our great-great-grandfathers and grandmothers that came here—they found some way to find the rhythm,” the 48-year-old rapper said over rambunctious horns reminiscent of Kanye West’s “We Major." “Now, we came here as slaves, but we going out as royalty, and able to show that we are truly the chosen ones.”
“The Chosen Ones,” the album’s final skit, wrapped A Seat at the Table like a bow. It bolstered the ancestral focus of the 20 tracks that preceded it, which included anecdotes from Solange’s parents, Tina and Mathew Knowles. Master P’s remarks even echoed James Baldwin’s famed quote, “Our crown is already bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear it.” Solange was using her songs to honor debts from ancestors both seen and unseen, producing a powerful statement on what black womanhood felt like at the tail-end of the Obama administration. Her just-released fourth full-length, When I Get Home, picks up where “The Chosen Ones” left off; Solange is still dedicated to showing the regality of black life, but this album is an intimate exploration of her Houston roots and black heritage.
According to a statement on Solange’s BlackPlanet page, the record is “an exploration of origin,” one which starts with a question: “How much of ourselves do we leave at home and how much do we carry with us forever?” Returning to Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood where she spent her formative years, from her mother’s native New Orleans where she created A Seat at the Table, When I Get Home delves deep into Solange’s lineage. It follows a trajectory similar to her family’s own migration, while also evoking a migration pattern embedded in zydeco culture, which Solange studied prior to its release.
“Hundreds and hundreds of people are getting on horses and trail riding from Texas to Louisiana,” she said in a Billboard interview last year, referencing the tradition where hundreds of black Southerners ride horses through the circuit trails to honor the black Creoles who traveled to Texas for work. The trails, which were once for employment, have now evolved into a cultural incubator for new music and food. “It’s a part of black history you don’t hear about.” In the 33-minute film that accompanies the album, Solange spotlights rural Creoles honoring black cowboy culture, who are on their journey as she embarks on her own. It’s as though she’s made the trip from New Orleans (A Seat at the Table), and is looking to find more answers in Houston (When I Get Home).
A Seat at the Table was a success both culturally and critically, proving an authentic sketch of black womanhood could permeate mainstream conversations—but could Solange do it again? In many ways that album felt like the culmination of her career thus far. It took a total of four years to create, with some songs, like “Cranes in the Sky," written as early as eight years prior to its 2016 release. “Cranes” won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance in 2016, and earned her the distinction of the Harvard Foundation’s Artist of the Year. For many A Seat at the Table was a remedy against daily microaggressions—but what would happen when discrimination got a lot more overt, as it did at Charlottesville’s deadly “Unite the Right” rally in 2017?. Donald Trump’s presidency brought what Ta-nehisi Coates has called a “negation to Barack Obama’s legacy.” In the three years since A Seat at the Table, Solange fans were waiting for another salve, but we had no idea how she would do it.
A year ago, Solange mentioned in a Billboard interview she was writing new music in the same house Joni Mitchell frequented in Jamaica. Last October, The New York Times Style Magazine conjured up more speculation. According to writer Ayana Mathis, the album was “imminent this fall” and set to be released “probably sometime soon.” But “soon” didn’t come as quickly as the profile suggested. “The record will likely arrive into the world fully formed at some mysterious and unexpected moment, like a meteor cratering into the culture,” Mathis wrote.
Like a meteor, Solange’s reemergence was hot and hard to miss; the singer moved mischievously, aligning herself with the element of surprise her big sister Beyoncé popularized in 2013—as well as undeniable markers of black culture. Last Tuesday, Solange resurrected BlackPlanet, an early online forum for black communities launched before the millennium. Two days later, she asked fans to call her at 281-330-8004, a number burned into the brains of rap fans by Houston rapper Mike Jones. If you were paying attention, you knew what this meant: Solange was coming.
Released on the cusp of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, When I Get Home continues her intersectional exploration of personal identity. On “Can I Hold the Mic,” Solange makes it clear that she cannot be defined in one way. “I can’t be a singular expression of myself; there’s too many parts, too many spaces, too many manifestations, too many lines, too many curves, too many journeys, too many mountains, too many rivers, so many,” she says. Luckily for us, Solange’s homecoming doesn’t force her to choose.
When I Get Home feels like the second helping of comfort food. It is a composite of familiar elements used to trigger a memory, best digested after you’ve already scraped your plate clean. Solange’s musings of home arrive quickly on the interlude “S McGregor,” which includes an excerpt of a Vivian Ayers poem performed by the Pulitzer nominee's own daughter, actress and fellow Houston native Phylicia Rashad, formerly known as Claire Huxtable. “I boarded a train, kissed all goodbye / And now my heart knows no delight,” Rashad says. The full version of the poem (“One Status”) finds Ayers growing weary of the South's slow creep, wondering what opportunities will find her in her small town. Like Solange, who left Brooklyn’s fast-pace in 2012, Ayers returns to the quiet town she once fled from. “It’s home / The folks are warm, and most of all / I belong,” Ayers writes. “Down With the Clique,” the next track, follows the warmth in Rashad’s voice with the heat of the Texas sun. “We were rolling up the street / Chasing the delight,” Solange sings. For Solange, it seems like Houston is the home of the “delight.”
Home is a recurring focus on the album but it's Solange's use of repetition that makes the album feel lived in. “Dreams,” a collaboration with Earl Sweatshirt, Raphael Saadiq, and Devin the Dude, sees Solange contemplating the way dreams can shift, unraveling at the seams until they are completely new. For much of the song, she repeats the line, “Dreams, they come a long way, not today.” The repetitive nature of this song, and much of the album, mimics a return home—yielding to patterns that are familiar, like muscle memory. Solange is making it easy for the listener to envision the place she calls home. The singer returns to this design on “Beltway,” a song that is nearly two minutes long but only repeats three phrases: “Don’t,” “You love me,” and “Lone.” The next song, “Exit Scott,” begins with a poem written by Pat Parker. “If it were possible to place you in my brain and let you roam around, in and out my thought waves, you would never have to ask, ‘Why do you love me?’” Solange does let us roam through her brain on When I Get Home, referencing streets of personal significance in Houston (“S McGregor,” “Beltway,” “Exit Scott”) to profess her love for the city. The album is a navigation system to the physical spaces that contributed to her identity.
When Solange isn’t performing a tribute to Houston’s Third Ward, she is celebrating her blackness. The singer’s odes to black life may not be as blatantly put as “Don’t Touch My Hair,” but they’re still stirring. She turns the trope of “CP Time," a stereotype that says black Americans are never on time, upside down on “Binz,” where she professes that her money is never late, although she’d love to sleep in. “Dollars never show up on CP time / I just want to wake up on CP time,” she says. “Almeda” finds Solange singing against a backdrop of drunken, warped percussion, a fitting choice for the brown liquor reference at the start of the song. “Black skin, black braids, black waves, black days, black baes, black things,” she says, after rattling off a laundry list of items found in black households (“Brown skin, brown face, brown leather, brown keys”).
The faith Solange puts in her black experience does not waver. “Black faith can’t be washed away / Not even in that Florida water,” she sings, mentioning the spiritual healing agent she carried with her at last year’s Met Gala. “My Skin My Logo” is the playful result of Solange and Gucci Mane rapping about each other, and their friendly sparring underscores the singer’s unwavering confidence. The title of the song pulls from his final bars—“My skin my logo”—which packs a punch as black consumers continue to boycott Gucci, the fashion house, over an $890 sweater resembling blackface. Solange’s choice to center the song around Gucci—the person, not the brand—is spot on. Black skin has been deemed inferior by western ideals for centuries, but Solange is rewriting the narrative. Black skin is luxury.
You won’t find another iteration of “Cranes in the Sky” or “Mad” on When I Get Home, and that’s deliberate. A woman’s voice creeps in the midsection of the album with a gentle reminder: “Do nothing without intention.” When I Get Home may not pack the gut punch A Seat at the Table did, but it doesn’t seem like Solange would’ve wanted it any other way. The three-year gap between the albums has brought head-spinning political change, and When I Get Home is a testament to the power of finding ourselves gracefully amid the chaos, like a true descendant of royalty. Just as Solange’s crown was already bought and paid for, When I Get Home is the singer’s deposit for those after her. It’s up to us to wear it.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.