During Black History Month, we celebrate the often-overlooked contributions to humanity made by black people throughout the ages; but, as Solange proves with her latest album A Seat at the Table, an artistic ode to such contributions has the power to make history in itself. The much-anticipated release – following a four-year hiatus – is a groundbreaking statement drawing attention to the lack of attention given to the struggles that black women, and people of color in general, have faced and continue to face. As explicitly stated in the song “F.U.B.U”, this album is intended to be a statement directly to the black women of the world- the only population that has the personal experience to truly understand Solange’s lyrical content. White audiences are only able to eavesdrop on a profound conversation of solidarity and empowerment- listening, not singing along.
With the first line of the album (and many to follow) being a command – “Fall in your ways, so you can crumble” – it is immediately obvious that Solange is here to do more than observe her surroundings. She has spent her life processing the injustice around her, and is ready to make a confident statement to a world in need. This strength is not demonstrated through sounds of aggression, however, or even anger. Solange’s melodies dart across the air with ease like a hummingbird moving from flower to flower. Her register is unapologetically feminine, and her lyrics prove that this is in no way synonymous with weakness. With a subdued wisdom that strolls at its own pace, she exhibits the beauty that lies within strength, and the strength within beauty.
Instrumentation on A Seat at the Table is relatively sparse, providing a fluttering satin foundation, while remaining careful not to encroach upon Solange’s space. Electric bass – an instrument pioneered by black motown artists – is the most involved, which roots the album in the legacy of its black predecessors. With lyrics that claim ownership of the style, “Junie” is perhaps the most obvious ode to the black-established funk music that spawned nearly of all present-day Western pop. Audiences of all races revel in the musical creations of black culture on a daily basis, often without an understanding of its struggle-born soul, but Solange has come to take ownership of what is rightfully hers.
While it would be easy to become entranced by the timbre of Solange’s voice alone, the heart of A Seat at the Table, rather obviously, lies in her lyrics. Opening with the concise anthem “Rise”, the theme of self-empowerment – prevalent throughout the album – is introduced. In this song, Solange communicates the vast potential within one person both lyrically and through layers of self-harmonization that fill the majority of the sonic space. In the tracks to come, a wide spectrum of social issues, most specifically pertaining to black women, are addressed, ranging from the necessity for a positive self-image despite society’s lack of recognition and the mortality of oppressors in “Weary”, to ownership of the cultural symbols of black struggle in “Don’t Touch my Hair”, to more personal reflection on coping mechanisms in “Cranes in the Sky.”
In its clear singular focus, A Seat at the Table manages to remain balanced in its treatment of topics that invoke internal conflict. “Mad” discusses the “angry black girl” stereotype, and how one’s anger, while completely valid, can inhibit forward motion if not channeled properly. Lil Wayne – a rapper often disregarded as mindless – continues the theme of defying stereotypes by contributing a thought-proving verse on the subject of anger. Addressing in a similar way the necessity for equilibrium, Solange sings “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care)” from a more optimistic viewpoint, acknowledging the turmoil in the world, but deciding to remain full of love and hope.
One of the most unique aspects of A Seat at the Table is its spoken-word interludes. In addition to providing seamless transitions that allow the album to flow as one coherent unit, these interludes pay homage to the wisdom of Solange’s black role models, including her own mother and father- figures that have served as inspiration for her activism. Their supplementation of her own statements creates a sense of unity across generations that is true to the spirit of Black History Month.
In the final track, “Closing: The Chosen Ones”, Solange’s opening command “rise” seems to reverberate as esteemed rapper Master P comes full circle, stating, “Now, we come here as slaves, but we going out as royalty, and able to show that we are truly the chosen ones”.