The common thread of America in 2016 is trauma.
Traumatic images are broadcast upon our phones, our television screens, our daily conversations. We continue to ask when’s the breaking point, when will the anger subside? When will we no longer be docile and meek; rather boiling and too appalled that we simply break in fury? In a way, that same stress disorder, the repeated visages of dead black people shot by the police found its way into our popular music. The voice of our constant, almost burrowed resolve usually rings out loudest when you least expect it. And buoyed by someone you rarely expect it from.
Solange Knowles, Houston’s own sun angel, has commonly been the Judy Funny of our times. The cool kid who linked up with David Sitek of TV On the Radio and created music with Dirty Projectors before the rest of the world caught him. The woman who saw that being a pop star didn’t work for her; ‘60s-style R&B with subtle hints of an '80s glow did. Sol-Angel & The Hadley St. Dreams gave way to stick-in-your-brain singles such as “I Decided” and “T.O.N.Y.” “Fuck the Industry” merely alerted the world to the agency and space she’d been slowly carving out. By the time we caught up to her on True in 2012, she’d been creating another space, one for creatives and funky-boutique dance parties in Saint Heron.
The criticisms lobbied at Solange for True could in effect have been lobbied at TVOTR, rock and indie moments created by mostly black faces. It’s historical fact that rock had become mostly whitewashed by the 1970s, with forefathers such as Chuck Berry reduced to misnomers and silly qualifiers to placate Elvis Presley. Boxing in the 30-year-old wasn’t going to happen
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She’s always walked, actually glided, with far sturdier heels on. Take, for example, the cover to her now-lauded A Seat at the Table. She’s bare-faced, staring intently with butterfly clips in her hair. It’s part signifier to Minnie Riperton’s innocence and part black-woman tonic. There’s no ruse about A Seat at the Table arriving with a brief announcement followed by a slow exorcism in the name of being free. Solange has been walking towards this point for as long as we can remember. For a woman who had essentially grown up painting and coloring outside the lines, the moment she decides to bring us inward to her, we’re left telling her thank you.
For the first time in maybe quite some time, A Seat at the Table offers up a What’s Going On-style critique of the world, of self from one black mother’s point of view. The guitars are smokey, the themes are led by one of the Ghetto Supermen of my childhood, Master P, along with Knowles’ own father Mathew and mother Tina Lawson. It’s a story where everyone, from R&B mainstays and bit players such as Raphael Saadiq and Tweet, has a say. It’s also a story that maintains its signature voice, that of Solange. It's something that on an album that tucks plenty under the cloak of pop and R&B, Solo maintains her new home of New Orleans and ultimately her honing of self.
“How soon will someone speak the word the resentful millions will understand: the word to be, to act, to live,” Richard Wright questioned in Native Son. It’s a parallel to so much in the world; the common conversations we have daily that ultimately lead nowhere. Or, at least we’d hope they lead beyond “nowhere." The opening chords of A Seat at the Table offer hints of warmth, of arrival. Instead by the droop and sullen guitars of “Weary,” Solange has focused herself to appear as someone who has seen too much and would rather peel back all of the scabs rather than absolve their existence.
I asked myself what exactly am I doing? In writing this, I’d grown tired, even punished by the idea of possibly writing about another death, another name reduced to binary code for social media. It sucks, it creates a style of hopeless depression that fosters more resentment. When I talk to my father, a 67-year-old coming to grips with not just mortality but also a general resentment of not being able to contribute, I hear his voice waver. I hear the drain whenever we talk about the future because he’s too focused trying to see tomorrow. To him, next week is another bout with dialysis. Another fight in not coming back home where his only sense of comfort is when his body actually allows him to sleep.
“I’m gon’ look for my glory” sounds like it was etched in a Bible, yet it appears in the refrain from “Weary." The creation and structure of A Seat at the Table works like this. At times, Solange looks outward while also looking directly at herself, at her own faults and growth. She slickly plays therapist to Lil Wayne, who riffs off about label drama and a suicide attempt on “Mad." Wayne has been trapped the entire year in some sort of haze of his past glory and loneliness. On “Mad,” he’s as pained as he’s ever been, nearly to the same effect of 2006’s “Georgia...Bush” where he ripped Ludacris’ “Georgia” to shreds over his city being reduced to a sociological footnote in George W. Bush’s presidency.
As Solo attempts to help Wayne sort through his own shit, she’s also walking into the office unpacking her own daily interactions. She’s badgered by a woman, "Why you always gotta be so mad?", to which Solange can only reply, “I got a lot to be mad about.” And she’s perfectly right. Just moments before, her father detailed his upbringing in Alabama, attempting to integrate both elementary and middle school. Of how he constantly was berated for being black, for being foreign to a white gaze. Two tracks later, there’s “Tina Taught Me,” a lesson from Tina Lawson to not only champion the beauty in being black but also question why should you be demonized for believing so. Solange and people who look like Solange have a right to be mad.
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But Solange is mad in the way a calm revolutionary is mad. Mad in the way James Brown raised hell with “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud." When she questioned critics about inclusion, she decided to up that ante by crafting “F.U.B.U.,” a record that shakes like campfire tales and tinges with the etymology of “for us, by us.” It’s why Master P, someone who argues about self-worth, determination and survival throughout A Seat at the Table is here and so prominent. It’s why “Junie,” with its rubbery bass in the key of Stevie, is the funkiest treatment that sits at this table. Or why “Don’t Touch My Hair” centers the micro-aggression of having your personal identity violated solely for amusement or Buzzfeed videos. Or even the gorgeous, yet operative coping mechanism that is "Cranes In the Sky." A Seat at the Table has so many different elements, so many different utensils to serve up the main course - a story about a black woman keen on not only telling her story but the story of so many others.
“They don’t understand what it means to me,” she sings on “Don’t Touch My Hair." That they, that very real body that constantly treats foreign concepts like zoo animals. The they who can’t recognize the very real occurrences of a state-sanctioned body that is ill-equipped, ill-prepared and wrought with bias.
What I gathered from A Seat at the Table is that it's a love letter to self. To self-individuality, to ownership of dreams, aspirations. Of starring at your demons and taking it day by day. A week after the album was released, another figure who had constantly found himself at the lips of despair decided to tell the world. Kid Cudi admitted he had been flirting with suicide, fittingly showing the world that his “beef” with mentor Kanye West was an impulsive cry of saying he wasn’t well. In truth, none of us truly are. Not in the fight to determine where our light actually lies. Solange’s battle and Kid Cudi’s and my father’s battles and thousands, if not millions, of others are linked by experience.
The moment may always feel too big, but it’s not one we can ignore. Not if we can talk about it. Solange's third solo effort is masterfully rooted in the black experience. "Cranes In the Sky" is, in effect, its most euphoric yet telling moment. For all the moments of darkness, there is euphoria. And it lies within you. Getting there is our daily fight. Solange's A Seat at the Table is available now on iTunes.
Solange's A Seat at the Table is available now on iTunes.