Solange’s new album A Seat at the Table, reviewed.

The Most Powerful Aspect of Solange’s New Album Is Its Refusal to Give an Empowering Message

The Most Powerful Aspect of Solange’s New Album Is Its Refusal to Give an Empowering Message

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Oct. 6 2016 10:56 AM

Solange’s A Seat at the Table Doesn’t Have an Empowering “Message”

And that’s exactly what makes it so powerful.

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161005_MUSIC_Solange

Saint/Columbia

The most haunting moment on Solange’s plaintive and vibrant new album A Seat at the Table comes in the second song, “Weary.” “I’m gonna look for my body, yeah, I’ll be back real soon,” Solange sings, her voice arcing gracefully up and back down to where she started. The line is both uncanny and oddly reassuring. You’ll be back soon? OK then, we’ll see you later. But going to look for your own body? Amid a humming electric piano and spare drumbeats, Solange serenades us as a disembodied voice—not only a woman alienated from her own body but a ghost cast out into a world at which she levels a quiet critique: In a country that so devalues black women’s lives, if she were to go missing, who else would go find her?

In the days since its release, critics have praised A Seat at the Table for delivering messages of racial empowerment perfectly pitched to the #BlackLivesMatter moment. They aren’t wrong. Certainly, song titles like “Don’t Touch My Hair” are about as clear as it gets, and Solange’s featured speakers, from her mother and father to Master P, address race in America with fierce eloquence. She herself tweeted that the album is meant to “provoke healing & [a] journey of self-empowerment.”

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But at the same time, to focus on the album’s “message” or its “statement” is to miss the fact that both the album and the issues she’s addressing are so much messier than that. The album’s layered voices and dense, intricate harmonies, its deliberate aesthetic of indirection, and its poetic double meanings all amount to a refusal to simplify this moment. By crafting an aesthetic of ebb and flow, push and pull, Solange insists on being angry (“I’ve got a lot to be mad about,” as she puts it on “Mad”), melancholic, and empowered. And her refusal to make one clear statement, far from compromising the force of her album, is actually the source of its power: By insisting on doubleness and ambivalence, she makes space for the complex interiority that black women are often denied, and refuses the role of racial healer they are often expected to play. Offering more questions than answers, more questing than closure, she might “provoke” healing, as she put it, but she does not provide it.

The album opens with a lullaby that at once soothes and raises questions:

Fall in your ways so you can crumble
Fall in your ways so you can sleep at night
Fall in your ways so you can wake up and rise

What does it mean to “fall in your ways”? And what does it mean to be able to crumble? Although the song ends with a call to “walk in your ways” so as to avoid crumbling, the first verse implies that crumbling might not be such a bad thing—that letting go or breaking down might help one to sleep and rise. That song sets the tone for an album that is richly resistant with contradictions—a place of warm strings and military percussion where “Cranes in the Sky” will be birds and machines, and where a cry of pain, as Master P states in “No Limits,” can become a “battle cry.”

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Even the claim that “this shit is for us,” the central refrain of “F.U.B.U.,” is complicated. Although Solange frames it as a gift to “all my niggas in the whole wide world,” she also anticipates it being overheard by a “you” that’s not part of the “us”: As she sings in the last verse, “Don’t be mad that you can’t sing along.” What’s more, the song does not only celebrate black power but also recounts white attempts to suppress it. Following Claudia Rankine’s long poem Citizen, one of her influences for the album, Solange provides a catalog of anti-black micro-aggressions—the other “shit” that’s “for us” and that the song aims to help black people through:

When it’s going on a thousand years
And you pulling up to your crib
And they ask you where you live again

The song is simultaneously a celebration, a lament, and a critique—an admixture that is also expressed in the way Solange sings. There is often a tension between what she sings and how she sings it. On “Mad,” she affirms her own and others’ right to “be mad, be mad, be mad” with a lilting pop finesse worthy of the Supremes, while also singing sorrowful lines with heartbreaking beauty: “Where’d your love go?” she inquires, repeating the question over a simple arpeggio as if retracing her steps. On the other hand, when she teams up with fellow R&B singer-songwriter Kelela to affirm black men in “Scales”—“You’re a superstar/ Always shining in the night/ And your skin glowing in the moonlight”—the mournfulness with which they sing the word superstar expresses something more beneath the words: The fact that, in a world that criminalizes black men, the very conspicuousness of their “shine in the night” can prove fatal.

The album’s complexity is also reflected in the myriad voices and influences Solange gathers into it—from funk pioneer Junie Morrison (on “Junie”) to Solange’s parents Mathew and Tina Knowles (on “Dad Was Mad” and “Tina Taught Me”) to narrator Master P and guest artists such as Lil Wayne, Sampha, and Kelly Rowland. These many and varied voices make the album a communal project, while also displaying Solange’s own skills as a DJ, arranger, producer, and singer who can channel influences as varied as Minnie Riperton’s ethereal soprano and Lauryn Hill’s throaty rasp. Yet while she embraces and remixes other voices with warmth and energy, she also cultivates boundaries and silence. On “Borderline (an Ode to Self-Care),” she opts to “take an intermission” from the “war outside these doors”; on “Weary,” she deploys dramatic pauses that recall Ibeyi’s “Ghosts.”

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That meditative quality arrives when we least expect it. In an interlude at the album’s midpoint, Master P determines to “send a message to the world” about black self-empowerment and belonging. A piano chord punctuates his statement like an exclamation point and initiates the next song, where a heavy vamp sets us up for the promised “message.” But the vamp gives way, like a dream deferred, to a pensive meditation on forced exile and wandering: “Where do we go from here?” Thwarting the desired message, Solange aims to keep folks company more than to guide them home.

If there is healing here, it’s the healing that comes through reclaiming and affirming what Ntozake Shange might call “alla my stuff”: sorrow, rage, and confusion, along with glory and pride. If there’s a statement, it lies in the refusal to make one. At a moment when even the seemingly incontestable statement that “black lives matter” has incurred wrath and resentment, Solange resists reducing her work to a message. She instead does the intimate, in-group work of letting things be as complicated, painful, and amazing as they are.

In his iconic poem “I, Too,” Langston Hughes used the table as a metaphor for America. Writing of a “darker brother” forced to “eat in the kitchen/ when company comes,” he expressed the man’s determination to stay at the table and show them “how beautiful I am.” It seems like a modest desire, to claim a place at a table when you have prepared the whole meal. Black people have, as Solange sings in “Don’t You Wait,” “[built] the land that has fed you your whole life.” An image as full of meanings as the album itself, the image of the table turns over the course of the album. It doesn’t need to be a metaphor for (white) America. It is also the place of the black home, where one’s parents might talk freely about their lives and views on race. Which raises one more question. If, as Master P declares in the closing track, “we [black people] are truly the chosen ones,” then whose table is it after all? And who decides who gets seated and who gets served?