Solange sets the table: take a seat

How often does a genuinely personal, political and narrative album come along?

It takes a truly talented artist to compose a record that gives the listener a feeling of actual dialogue–a coherent communication of life, struggle and philosophy from musician to audience. That is what Solange Knowles has done with her new album, “A Seat at the Table.”

The first song I heard off the record was titled “Don’t Touch My Hair;” immediately I knew the album would be an essential. Let me explain.

Many people are familiar with “the nod:” the moment shared by black men at work or on the street – a subtle “I see you.”

Black women have a similar tradition. As a black girl growing up in Maine with “natural” hair, if I ever passed a sister on the street rocking dreads, bantu knots or an afro like me, there was an instant connection–a smile, a look of acknowledgement or sometimes an “I love your hair!”

It was a connection that contrasted the strange voyeurism felt on a daily basis: the strangers walking up to us, hands outstretched expectantly, asking, “is that real?” or “can I touch it?” meaning, of course, “can I touch you?” but few people see it that way.

And then Solange whispers through my headphones, “don’t.”

Solange has crafted an album that perfectly embodies the phrase, “the personal is the political,” both through her lyrics and the intimate tone of her songs, half Erykah Badu, half ‘70’s R&B.

Kicking off the album with “Rise” and “Weary,” both slow and intentional songs, it almost feels like Solange is sitting on your couch humming to herself at the end of the night.

These songs, however, are not simple, with complex harmony playing a major role in each track.  Still, no matter how they are layered, each song maintains soft-edged cadence of a 2 a.m. confessional.

The confessional feeling comes as much from the album’s subject matter as the music. Though it does tackle the roots and effects of racism, “A Seat at the Table” is not an argument; it feels more like an album of legacy.

That legacy is communicated through the standout of the album: a series of spoken interludes which punctuate the album and tenderly transition between songs.

In these, we get to hear soundbites of speakers like rapper Master P, who contributed significantly to the album. The soundbites also include gems from Matthew and Tina Knowles, Solange’s parents.

These interludes ground the sense of history and scope in the album. They give the feeling of dinner-table advising sessions, mentorship from an older generation, especially as Solange’s father speaks about his experience when U.S. schools were first integrated.

The ability to create an album that feels simultaneously like a historical monument and a diary entry is rare, and Solange’s album does just that in a humble and powerful way. Even in the album’s cover art, Solange hints at the bold statement we’re about to hear; naked,  hair still being crimped, Solange stares unapologetically directly into the camera.

“A Seat at the Table” is equal parts soul and craft, and I, for one, feel lucky to be allowed without pretense into the mind of such an artist.




This story has been updated from its original print version published in the Vermont Cynic Oct. 26.