“Radio say ‘speed it up’. I just go slow”. This is of course not a Solange lyric, but rather, it comes from her big sister Beyoncé’s 2013 instant classic “Partition”. Still, more than anything Beyoncé has done since she initiated her own personal revolution that year, such a lyric encapsulates what Solange Knowles aims for with her latest, career-defining release A Seat at the Table. This record is unapologetic and fearless about examining the place of blackness in contemporary America, and makes no secret of rejecting white culture’s attempts to co-opt the narrative. Still, Solange’s form of defiance here is not necessarily what one might expect.
There are no obvious moments where she righteously smites the oppressor with spitfire aimed at temporary catharsis; there is little catharsis to be found here at all, in fact. The whole album persists in a slow, unhurried tempo almost without variation. It’s unfair to keep comparing Solange to her sister, but in light of Beyoncé’s own seminal release earlier this year, Lemonade, one listens to A Seat at the Table half-anticipating the moment where Solange’s cool will finally shatter and she will begin shrieking, “DON’T HURT YOURSELF DON’T HURT YOURSELF!!!”.
But, no, such a moment never comes. If there’s anything Solange wants us to know, it’s that she’s damn tired of this shit, but that she’s also too busy following her own bliss to expend too much energy at once on white people. “I’m weary of the ways of the world”, she sings on “Weary”, speaking to the kind of exhaustion that comes from a lifetime of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination and marginalization. Solange recognizes that fighting oppression is a marathon, not a sprint, and on “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care)” she preaches the importance of not burning oneself out amidst the struggle of protest, singing, “Baby, it’s war outside these walls…A safe place tonight / Let’s play it safe tonight”.
Still, A Seat at the Table is not without its measured confrontations. “Don’t Touch My Hair” addresses white ignorance and appropriation, taking as its title one of the most basic violations of black personal space and autonomy that white people nonetheless continually perpetuate. The song is about more than just hair, of course: “Don’t touch my Soul / When it’s the rhythm I know,” she adds immediately thereafter. The invocation of “rhythm” here suggests that Solange is referring not to her personal soul-as-in-spirit, but rather to soul as another historically black musical genre that white people too often fetishize and appropriate. The history of popular music in the United States is frequently a two-step cycle where black people innovate and invent new musical forms, and then white people eagerly jump in and claim those genres for themselves, often to much greater popular and commercial success (see: everyone from Elvis to Justin Timberlake). “They don’t understand what it means to me, but this hair is mine”, Solange concludes, reasserting her ownership and autonomy.
Solange could really have been a whole lot more combative than she is, however. She actually shows remarkable compassion in trying to open up a dialogue with white ignorance rather than saying, “Screw you guys, figure it out for yourselves”. On “Interlude: Tina Taught Me”, Solange’s mother calls upon white people to reflect on their own racial defensiveness: “What’s irritating is when somebody says, ‘They have a Black History Month, but we don’t have a White History Month!’ Well, all we’ve ever been taught is white history. So, why are you mad at that? Why does that make you angry? That is to suppress me and to make me not be proud.” This brief spoken-word interlude alone should be played for every white person everywhere who has yet to question their own power and privilege; it should be put on mix CDs where it’s every single track, so succinctly put is Tina Lawson’s argument and so pointed are her interrogations of black pride and white insecurity.
If A Seat at the Table suffers for anything, it is that its slow pace and unvarying texture can be a bit exhausting. The album alternates between songs and interludes at nearly every other track, resulting in a stop-start dynamic that can be cognitively fatiguing. Even though the album is a pretty standard 52 minutes long, it’s hard to listen to it all in one sitting without going a little cross-eyed by the time you reach, say, the acid funk of “Junie”. The variation between songs is more relative than anything else, though every bit is welcome: album highlight “Don’t You Wait” is a disco-inflected late-night drive, and “Don’t Wish Me Well” provides as close to a denouement as we ever get with its brittle, neon, Johnny Jewel-esque synths.
“Cranes in the Sky” meanwhile is this album’s best answer to Solange’s 2012 breakout single, the Dev Hynes-produced “Losing You”. “Losing You” is still Solange’s best song to date, but nothing so revelatory or joyful-sounding would have fit on this record anyway. Comparatively dreary though it may be, “Cranes” nonetheless offers similarly candid and unadorned reflections on heartache, with simple lines like, “I slept it away, I sexed it away, I read it away” (or, as I prefer to hear it, “I sext it away, I Reddit away”).
Daunting and at times exhausting, A Seat at the Table is still an undeniably important work. In 2016 alone there have been a number of groundbreaking releases by black artists making fearless albums about blackness in America, from Lemonade to Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound to Frank Ocean’s Blonde. Solange boldly enters this crowded field and more than holds her own, cementing her status as a voice to be reckoned with. Indeed, there can never be too many voices in pop music advocating for black pride, especially in a year where white supremacy has animated an enormous swath of the conservative movement and where police violence has continued escalating its assault on the black community. is both politically essential and musically timeless.