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Review: Solange’s Exquisite A Seat at the Table Is a Portrait of Black Pain and Healing

Solange Knowles has released about as misunderstood (and excellent) records as she’s released records at all. Her debut, Solo Star, has been criticized for being more a producer’s than an artist’s showcase, despite Solange being under 18 when it was recorded—how many albums by underage artists (and in the early ‘00s there were a lot) earned their performers a career asterisk? Follow-up Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams was somewhat frequently called an R&B novelty; similarly, True, released in 2012, remains critically acclaimed but pigeonholed by critics with minimal R&B backgrounds. The record is tonally complex, balancing joy with rueful, winter-hued reflection, but its subsequent reductive canonization deemed it a party record somehow indebted to labelmate Grizzly Bear.

A lot has happened since 2012. Her sister, Beyoncé, released two huge albums, both explicit statements of black artistry and interiority; yet at the same time, the tabloids came calling and Solange was put in the position—yet again, after a decade—of introducing herself as an artist to an incurious audience who would see her otherwise. After True came a falling-out, since mended, between Knowles and Hynes over her contributions to the album. Overshadowing both, of course, are several years in which the lingering undercurrents of racism in America have ceased to be undercurrents. All these were the subject of an essay Solange wrote earlier this year: a statement, prompted by having trash and half-eaten limes thrown at her and her family at a Kraftwerk concert, that has coalesced into her third studio album, A Seat at the Table.

This is a record steeped in history. Its title evokes Langston Hughes’s “I, Too, Sing America.” Throughout the record are spoken interludes by Master P of ’90s juggernaut No Limit Records and her parents Mathew Knowles and Tina Lawson: on their respective histories, of building a successful label despite executive resistance, of being bussed into white neighborhoods with the KKK standing by, of being questioned for their pride. Solange is deliberately archiving this history: recounting the No Limit story as a blueprint for her own label, and recording much of the album in a studio in New Iberia, Louisiana, where Lawson’s parents grew up and were driven out after a molotov cocktail was thrown into their home following a mining-company rift.

The album’s collaborators represent several decades of musicianship—often specifically black musicianship—both canonized and overlooked. Co-producers and soul-music veterans Raphael Saadiq and ?uestlove share space with such new talents as Kelela and Sampha; the presence of Dirty Producers’ Dave Longstreth and ex-Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij has been remarked upon and will be over-remarked upon, but just as notable is the work of Hynes and The-Dream, and the presence (and actual crediting) of underrated R&B artists like Kelly Rowland and Tweet.

The wealth of talent on A Seat at the Table is well-showcased—it’s among the most exquisite productions of the year, each track silken-smooth and replete with quietly virtuosic instrumental flourishes—and in service of a story of pain and healing. The meditative “Rise” begins almost as a prayer (“Fall in your ways, so you can wake up and rise”), leading into the Ecclesiastian “Weary”: “I’m weary of the ways of the world … Do you belong? / I do,” then the Minnie Riperton-esque “Cranes in the Sky,” which works through a lifetime of futile ways to distract oneself from encroaching pain.  “I tried to work it away, I tried to keep myself busy … I slept it away, I sexed it away, I read it away, away,” Solange sings, dispassionately, as if letting each one go in turn; none of these distractions ever really work, and “Cranes” circles around its subject: pain personified as shadows of metal cranes, a literal sight in gentrifying neighborhoods.

“Mad,” “Don’t Touch My Hair,” and “F.U.B.U.” itemize the various aggressions and micro-aggressions black Americans face. “Mad” features a resignedly frank guest verse by Lil Wayne about his past suicide attempt and his supporters turning on him, while on “F.U.B.U.,” rapper BJ the Chicago Kid joins the rally: “Don’t clip my wings before I learn to fly — I didn’t come back down to Earth to die.” The title, of course, stands for “for us, by us,” a gesture Solange likened to punk musicians claiming space for themselves: “When I think of “F.U.B.U.,” and the album as a whole, I think of punk music and how white kids were allowed to be completely disruptive, allowed to be anti-establishment, and express rage and anger…. They were allowed to have the space to do all of that.”

The arc of the album, then, is one of healing. The sunny, Aaliyah-quoting “Borderline,” as the title states, is “an ode to self-care” as well as the good old-fashioned kind between lovers; It leads into the exuberant “Junie,” named for the Ohio Players frontman and whirling through funk history from Parliament-Funkadelic to Prince and Patrice Rushen up to featured artist André 3000—then “I Got So Much Magic, You Can Have It,” a joyous a cappella interlude by Rowland and Nia Andrews—who just released an excellent EP after 2013’s Colours. (This is one thing A Seat at the Table has in common with Lemonade: being a launching platform for overlooked artists.) “Don’t let anybody steal your magic,” they sing, then, with irrepressible laughter: “I got so much, y’all, you can have it.”

A Seat at the Table is an album that deserves to be heard as an album, a deliberately sequenced showcase for songs and interludes, musicianship and message, but will inevitably be snippetized and excised into individual tracks. Its response: to let that be, knowing the right listeners will find the right messages.

Katherine St. Asaph is a freelance music writer whose work has appeared on Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and other publications.