Solange’s new album, A Seat at the Table, isn’t a “surprise” in the stark, chaotic sense that we now typically mean when we talk about music released with little to no notice. Solange announced her album last Tuesday morning; she teased the themes, inspirations, and guests in a few interviews published throughout the week; and then her songs arrived Friday at midnight. All on schedule, and, at every turn, a slight step ahead of the project’s own hype.
Only confidence and teamwork could produce such efficiency. Solange has said that she spent four years crafting A Seat at the Table, a stylistic break from Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams (2008) and True (2012). Compared with her previous work, A Seat at the Table is a lot less pop, a lot less rock, and a lot more intimate in its setting; songs like “Cranes in the Sky,” “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care),” and “Mad” are full of clean grooves and moody pulsation. The bass lines are sensational. True was largely defined by Solange’s retro-dance collaborations with the British producer Dev Hynes, who appears only briefly on this album. Solange has made a point of defining A Seat at the Table as, simultaneously, a personal meditation but also a community address. Solange’s mother, Tina, and No Limit Records founder Master P narrate the album with singular interludes in which they explicitly link black music and black ancestry.
In 2009, Solange parted ways with Interscope. Four years later, she launched Saint Records. The independent label is home to a rogue’s gallery of criminally underrated singers whom music publications generally consider to be a vanguard of so-called “alternative R&B.” On the 2013 debut compilation album, Saint Heron, the label billed its roster as “a new movement of contemporary, genre-defying R&B visionaries.”
Solange, much like D’Angelo before her, often speaks as her generation’s designated historian of R&B; she frames her own music as one point in a great, black constellation. On A Seat at the Table, Solange has assembled several stars into the cool, rarefied air where the constellation shines brightest. Sampha joins Solange on the chorus and in the music video for “Don’t Touch My Hair,” a warning to grabby-ass white people who are intrusively fascinated by black style. Tweet, who is enjoying a quiet reprise this year despite Twitter’s total pollution of her SEO, sings woops and ooos on a few songs, including “F.U.B.U.,” an anthem call for “all my niggas in the whole wide world” to reclaim besieged corners of black culture. (The song also features a late verse from The-Dream and BJ the Chicago Kid.)
Master P is here to bridge the gap between Louisiana — where Solange now lives and spent much of her early life, and where she drew musical inspiration for much of this album — and Houston, where Solange’s parents, Mathew and Tina Knowles, raised her. As the album’s most senior talent, Raphael Saadiq is all over this joint, singing backup on and coproducing eight of Solange’s 21 tracks. (Coincidentally, Saadiq is all over the first Netflix episode of Marvel’s Luke Cage, another recently launched conservatory for black music.)
Solange describes Saadiq as a crucial consultant in the overall direction of A Seat at the Table, and he’s as present in voice as he is in the album’s languid bass grooves. Solange also cites Tweet as “probably single-handedly the biggest vocal influence” on the album. In deference to her living influences, Solange says all this as if she herself didn’t write, arrange, and produce all 21 tracks, including the interludes, in addition to singing and playing piano!
A Seat at the Table is, by some measures, a statement record. The Los Angeles Times describes it as “an ambitious meditation on black life,” and I suppose that’s right in a general sense, but more so in a seemingly private, confessional manner. Lil Wayne, who has spent most of his natural life signed to Cash Money Records, graces a great song called “Mad” to spill his suicidal thoughts and his alienation from Birdman, Drake, Nicki Minaj, et al. “But it’s hard when you only / Got fans around and no fam around / And if they are, then they hands is out / And they pointing fingers,” Wayne raps. “You got a right to be mad,” Solange sings. Wayne and Solange previously worked together to produce the slick 2008 party-pop ballad “ChampagneChroniKnightcap.” Eight years later, the vibe is quite different. On A Seat at the Table, Solange has crafted a delicate concert of personal histories, ultimatums on behalf of her race (e.g., “don’t touch my hair,” “don’t you wait for me,” “don’t try to come for us”), and quotidian black pride.
Wayne, Tweet, Kelela, Sampha, Master P, and Saadiq: This awesome variety of musicians, ranging in experience, offers bits on Solange’s album that feel rare or unappraised elsewhere. This whole tape is family candor. Everyone’s in good company here, if by invitation only.