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A Seat at the Table Sony
by Maura Johnston | October 4th, 2016 9:49:AM EST
The third album by Solange Knowles, A Seat at the Table, is a record about black survival in 2016; a combination of straight talk and refracted R&B for what she calls her "project on identity, empowerment, independence, grief and healing." Beyond titles that telegraph the album's powerful, political backbone – "F.U.B.U.," "Mad," "Don't Touch My Hair" – its a fantastic-sounding LP that takes sonic cues from dusty soul sides while sounding as timely as a freshly sent tweet.
Co-executive-produced by Solange and neo-soul sage Rapahel Saadiq, A Seat at the Table derives its sonic power from lightness, with Solange's simply stated opinions landing harder as a result. A triptych of songs serve as invitations for people to check themselves: "Don't You Wait" pairs a stuttering bass line and Solange's falsetto with lyrics about removing negative influences from her life; "Don't Touch My Hair" uses sparkling synths and drowsy horns as broadsides against those who might deny Solange and other black women their bodily autonomy; the trembling guitars of "Don't Wish Me Well" provide a glittery backdrop as Solange revels in her personal growth. "Junie," a lightly percolating shimmy that pays tribute to funk polymath Junie Morrison (Ohio Players, Parliament-Funkadelic), brings Andre 3000's falsetto and a vamping piano into its heady mix.
Solange coaxes honesty out of the album's guests, whether they're adding verses or just sitting down with her to chat. Her father Mathew looks back on his youth, when he was spit on as one of the first black students at a school in the South; on the interlude "Tina Taught Me," her mother Tina effectively dismantles "white lives matter" rhetoric. Master P appears in conversation multiple times, including an interlude where talks about his inspiration for beginning his wildly successful label No Limit Records as a door-to-door sales business ("I watched the Avon lady in my hood. She popped her trunk and sell her products. So I put all my CDs and cassettes in the back of my trunk and I hit every city, every hood") over suspended flute chords. And Lil Wayne's verse on the spectral "Mad" offers straight talk about what he has "to pop a Xan about," including alienation and loneliness.
A Seat at the Table is a gentle-sounding album, but it is not weak. Solange has referred to it as a punk record: In conversation with W, she said she was aiming to make "A highly honest, disruptive, angsty record with all of the nuances that I wanted to express." Her minimalist distillation of R&B, which takes into consideration not just the genre's rich musical history but also its penchant for social commentary, has resulted in a stunning statement that redefines the old chestnut about the personal being political. In a volatile world increasingly defined by the brash and the crude, Solange's packaging of brutal honesty in tender, harmony-rich murmurs is both beautiful and radical.
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