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Solange - A Seat At The Table (Album Review)

Tuesday, 29 November 2016 Written by Huw Baines

Some records take a hammer to their surroundings. They show us the world and then tear it down before our eyes, eager for us to understand and embrace their rage. Solange’s ‘A Seat At The Table’ almost does the opposite. She relates lyrics driven by anger and repeated pleas for understanding over songs that are very rarely less than palatial and, to the last note, immaculately constructed. This is a record of remarkable poise and a rare example of an artist speaking with absolute conviction as both a lyricist and musician.

Since its release, ‘A Seat At The Table’ has crested charts while the world around it edged closer to the drain. Its pointed lyrics about empowerment, the reclamation of black culture and grief have become even more important than they were a few weeks ago, while its songs have gradually revealed new elements ripe for further investigation. 

Its finished iteration is layered and refined, but its beating heart can easily be traced back to the image of Solange letting melodies tumble out in freestyles at a piano, with its myriad contributors - from Sampha to Lil Wayne to Q-Tip - all slipping seamlessly into its environment.

It’s flecked with moments of joy and levity - the ascending ‘aways’ and harp strikes of Cranes in the Sky, the beat dropping on Borderline (An Ode To Self Care) - but there is also a lingering sense of tension and fatigue in some of its movements.

Sometimes, as on the latter, those two seemingly opposing strands are twisted into a single track. "Baby, you know you're tired," Solange sings. "Know I'm tired.” That feeling might link back to the album’s long gestation - getting on for four years - but it also has thematic clout.

Solange’s ongoing frustrations, alongside her commitment to better understanding herself and the machinations of society, are a constant here. There is a lot of information (much of it straddling a line between misguided and malicious) available to us and parsing it is a draining endeavour. But records like this are able to do some of the legwork for us, much as the inspirations for ‘A Seat At The Table’ helped grease its creative wheels.

The power of these songs lies not just in their melodic weight or the almost lackadaisical power of Solange’s vocal delivery. From its use of punchy, soul-indebted horns to the presence of Master P and Tina Knowles’ impassioned introduction to Don’t Touch My Hair, Solange has absorbed and repurposed a truckload of cultural capital for fresh eyes and ears.

Here is a record that glides with complete certainty in its musical decisions while displaying an infectious hunger for knowledge. ‘A Seat At The Table’ is, in a year when Beyoncé also scaled new creative heights on ‘Lemonade’, quite extraordinary.

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