When the phrase “slept on” is used to describe an album then in 2016 “A Seat At The Table” by singer/songwriter Solange Knowles is going to fit perfectly into that category.
This album was one of the most pleasant listening experiences of 2016 as it’s tone and atmosphere were not what I had expected. To be honest I am not sure what exactly it was I expected to hear given that I only really knew Solange from 2008’s “I Decided” which was a song that lacked any real identity.
But this album is personal, well thought out and executed with a soft quiet resonance that engages you in the world that Solange operates in.
The opening track is just 1:04 long. It is called “Rise” and Solange talks about staying true to yourself. It’s a good introduction and sets the tone of self empowerment perfectly.
“Weary” is an excellent track. Vocally she is compelling and I love the simple instrumentation on this track with the bass, guitar, drums and piano creating this simple tune that allows her vocal to be heard as she sings about the world and the lack of equality as we focus on things that shouldn’t matter. But the most impressive thing is the vocal which is exquisite.
The next full track after a quick interlude is the lead single “Cranes In The Sky”. This song hits on the theme of depression and painful experiences. Solange talks about how she has tried to drink the pain away as well as buying new clothes and even having sex to try and forget.
The way she delivers her vocal on this track is angelic. There is such a smoothing nature about this song that every time I listen to it I seem to get lost in the music and voice, unable to do anything else. Towards the end of the song the comparisons to none other than Minnie Riperton are evident as she displays her upper register and proves that she is a very talented vocalist.
The interlude “Dad was mad” is her father Michael describing the racism her suffered as he grew up. This then leads us into the track “Mad” which features rapper Lil Wayne.
This particular track opens up a main theme running through the album which is about being black and in particular being proud of being back. This song explores the opinion of how black people are perceived as being ‘mad’ if they are unhappy with something that has been said or done to them which has an undertone of racism.
The final line of the song is
“I’m not allowed to be mad”
This is an important line as it touches on the issues black women have when they are labelled as an “angry black woman”. This stereotype in itself is something that would make anyone mad.
As the album continues to press on the theme becomes more apparent as Solange is not just doing a R&B album here. This isn’t looking for hits, this is looking to make a statement and with the topical subject of how black people are perceived in America this album is a statement of political fury and protest.
“Don’t You Wait” with it’s echoing synth drums is a message to those who have expected her to go in a different direction. It essentially is addressing listeners of her last album who were perhaps critical but at the same time expected her to come back with something more akin to a previous album released by her sister Beyonce.
Musically it may not be one of the more memorable songs on the album but it is lyrically poignant.
We then have a short interlude where her Mother Tina talks about being proud to be black and that because you are a proud black person this doesn’t mean you are anti white.
“Don’t Touch My Hair” is the centre piece of this very clever album. This song is a beautiful smooth Neo Soul slice of heaven. Melodically it is mesmerizing, musically it is simple but fitting to the mood and lyrically there is depth to what Solange is saying that you couldn’t have predicted going into this album.
Solange is commentating on things that just go to far when judging a black woman. The hair is being used at the line to not cross but I don’t think Solange is just talking literally about touching her hair, I believe she is talking about not taking any more liberties just because she is not white. The racism she is discussing is subtle but just as destructive.
“Where Do We Go” tells the powerful story of her parents being chased out of the town they lived in America because they were trying to stand up for themselves. The live feel of the drums and the piano and bass give the song a soulful groove but again it is the delivery from her vocal which steals the show again.
“F.U.B.U” is almost uncomfortable for me to listen to because as Solange points out ‘this shit is for us’ and I don’t think she means a white boy from England.
This is the biggest statement of black power on this project. It’s ballsy, unapologetic and s directly sending a message to the black people of America. It talks about the frustration on how black people are treated by white people. It comments on how those in charge make unfair conclusions and think that all black people are the same.
Solange may posses a wonderful voice but she isn’t trying to relax or comfort you with this track.
Because of the message the songs wonderful production can be missed. The horns are delightful and enhance the power of this track. Whether I am meant to understand or even try to I still think its a fantastic song and not because I am pandering to a situation that I don’t understand (which as a white Englishman I obvious cannot relate to) but because I think it is a great song. The trouble is if I say this then am I going to be accused of being condescending and sympathetic to a cause that isn’t something I can remotely understand?
Track 14 is “Borderline (An Ode To Self Care)”. With Q Tip helping with the production Solange is singing about how her and her partner need to look after themselves in their home on this occasion as to constantly think about the state of the world and how bad things can be is ultimately detrimental and futile to their own existence.
I like how this track is saying that despite her strong views on society there has to be a point where the home becomes the safe place and that self care is a vital component in living your life.
“Junie” is the funkiest song on the album. With production from Andre 3000 and additional vocals from Nia Andrews and Kelly Rowland this song is just divine.
It’s also a nice change to the down tempo nature of the rest of the album. The production is so rich and Solange has a vocal delivery which continues to really impress me.
The next interlude “No Limits” is Master P narrating about his desire and drive to move forward with his music.
We then go into “Don’t Wish Me Well” which Solange talks about her own move forward. She is happy for people to come along with her and will ‘leave the lights on for you’ but she is her own person and will make all the decisions herself.
I find this song gorgeous. I love the instrumentation and and the vocal layering. I listened to a lot of this type of music with Erykah Badu and Bilal and Solange hits this just as well.
One of my favourites songs on the entire set.
Master P then narrates again on “Interlude: Pedestals” as he talks about the fact that everyone has problems no matter what colour you are and that the world is not perfect. It may be harder for black people to get away from addiction as they may not have the chance to go to rehab but regardless they need to ‘rehab themselves’.
Which nicely leads us into “Scales” which features vocals from Female American singer Kelela. This for me is one of the weaker songs on the album as it never really goes anywhere and at 3.39 it drags a little. The harmonies are what I believe are meant to drive the song but it lacks much diversity in either it’s music or vocals.
The final track is a short narration over some horns by Master P with “Closing: The Chosen One” where he talks about how black people with the journey they have to go through are the chosen ones.
The way the album ends is fitting to what the subject has been about. Solange has not tried to subtly tell us that she is proud of who she is and her race – she has delivered an album which has said this loud and clear.
Whilst we have had many social and racially driven albums over the years I believe Solange has hit the spot perfectly and in a exceptionally timely fashion. I believe the world needed this album and whilst it would have never been in my head that it would be Solange Knowles who would deliver it the fact is she has gone away and come back with without a doubt one of the best albums of 2016.
This will be a CD on rotation for quite some time yet and also makes me yearn to hear more from an an artist who hasn’t just got a ‘seat at the table’, shes owns the whole room.