Yearning is a humbling sensation. Buddhism teaches that to want is to suffer, to be distracted from one's inherent happiness . What you crave is what controls you, guides your actions and shapes your motives. In lieu of countless atrocities, this year has left many of us yearning for healing, for safe space, peace of mind, a public figure who genuinely relates to the malady of being an ostracized member of a society riddled with toxins. Too often, this yearning yields only helplessness and uncertainty. However, sometimes our hunger leads us to food; in this case, soul food. Cue indie R&B fairy godmother Solange, who has crafted a willowy assortment of subtle triumphs rich with poignant cameos and gorgeous auburn arrangements. For those yearning for a musical affirmation of the thorny, nuanced, gilded enchantment of the contemporary black experience, Solange offers “A Seat at the Table”.
Like Sunday dinner at Big Momma's house, Solange's third full-length can be divided into three acts: the Prayer, the Meal, and the Colloquy. It all begins with a heedful message. “Fall in your ways/ so you can crumble/ fall in your ways/ so you can sleep at night”, Solange advises on album opener “Rise” while harmonizing in her signature, ethereal falsetto, “fall in your ways/ so you can wake up and rise.” Overcoming obstacles to ultimately fulfill one's potential is a reoccurring theme throughout the album. The first few songs all occupy a heavenly and somewhat sorrowful space where this sentiment is constantly echoed. It manifests as a tenuous ache on the solemn ode to black exhaustion, “Weary”, in which Solange riffs about navigating a world that marginalizes her over flickering synths and piano, a lumbering groove, and beautifully fragile diapasons from a strongly missed Tweet. The first interlude features an austere sounding Master P and it doesn't contribute anything to the album's overall motif. However, “Cranes in the Sky”, a clement sonic pasture that sees our big cousin Solange channeling Minnie Ripperton while fluttering through angst and social anxiety, features her most soothing and transcendent vocal performance to date.
Deeper in we discover more and more about our host's political influences as the mood of the album changes from doe-eyed and waft to distinctly sagacious. A rare word from her father reveals the Knowles' deep-rooted connection to civil rights and accents “Mad”, a song that trudges along at a frustrating pace and stars an out-of-place but welcome Lil Wayne. It's a nice, but under-cooked side dish. “Don't You Wait” harkens back to the 80's fervor of Solange's own excellent True EP. Tina Knowles offers some not-so-common sense insight into the necessity of Afrocentrism which glides seamlessly into the gallant strut of “Don't Touch My Hair”, featuring Sampha at his woeful best. Master P provides a more viable contribution in his critique of gentrification on “Interlude: This Moment”. Suddenly, on the cruising yet punchy “Where Do We Go”, we get a glimpse into a more familiar Solange character, the defiantly lovelorn siren burning with unanswered questions. It's almost uncanny how much she sounds like her big sister when she sings in her lower register, reminding us briefly that Matthew and Tina raised not one, but two envelope-pushing musical phenoms. It's the most vulnerable we've ever heard her sound, on an album otherwise dedicated to radical self-empowerment.
Act three begins with a simple, if controversial, conversation starter: how do we protect and uplift blackness? Master P suggests independent business practice, audacious camaraderie, and earnest spirituality. Solange suggests baptism. “F.U.B.U.” is an altar call for those of us wanting to stand unabashedly in black pride, amplified by a stank-face inducing horn section, she even details instances in which she's been racially profiled and hopes her son will “bang this song so loud. Cause his momma want to make him proud/ to be us”. The-Dream, after taking on a similar role on Kanye's own secular summons, provides some shaky testimony before making way for BJ the Chicago Kid and an ensemble of vocal deities. Then we hit peak #BlackGirlMagic with the glorious night and day juxtapositions of “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care)” and the joyous, family reunion ready funk anthem “Junie”. The album closes with two final declarations of impenetrable solace in love and identity. “Don't Wish Me Well” promises to hold space for those who have yet to comprehend their own glory, while maintaining that progression will distance us from our flawed pasts. It's a bittersweet concept that Solange dissects with precise discernment and empathy. On “Scales”, she invites Kelela to a woozy bedroom ballad dedicated to hood nigga sex appeal and it's easily the best baby-making music Sol-Angel has ever concocted. In conclusion, Master P proposes a toast to our collective amelioration: “We come here as slaves, but we going out as royalty, and able to show that we are truly the chosen ones.” What more is there for us to yearn for?
Plenty, of course, but the album never suggests that our work is done. These tracks refuse to boil diasporic plight down to “we gon be alright” in an attempt to band-aid third-degree burns. Instead, we are challenged to meet the various perspectives of folks who share this plight in a space that is designed by and for black people, more specifically black women. Raphael Saadiq, the executive producer of the record, prepared this feast with acute detail, never over-seasoning the arrangements or underestimating our palate, offering us a cohesive variety of textures and tangs. Meanwhile, Solange never claims to have the answers Sway and presents all these unapologetic perspectives not as infallible truths, but as sturdy disputation points, leaving us the facility to engage where we see fit. Distractions from the theme of healing and genteel tone are few and too fleeting to undermine the overall ebb and flow of the opus which expressly mirrors that of the family dinner and ultimately leaves us wholly satisfied. rejuvenated, and profoundly grateful to our master of ceremonies.