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Solange's triumphant 'A Seat at the Table' provides an ambitious meditation on black life

Solange's triumphant 'A Seat at the Table' provides an ambitious meditation on black life
Solange Knowles. (Courtesy of Saint Heron/Columbia Records)

To have a seat at the table is to have power, influence, access, status and privilege — it's an idea that has long separated and divided us.

In black culture, getting a "seat" has often come with caveats. The very idea of being seen as equal without the fear of prejudice is still a traumatic one. And at home, the seat is very much about familial gathering. It's where we nurture, educate, grieve, laugh, celebrate and connect.

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Those two worlds of black existence — at home and in the world at large — serves as the basis for Solange Knowles' exquisite, sumptuous new album, "A Seat at the Table."

Her first full-length project in eight years, the 30-year-old singer-songwriter, who performs under the name Solange, opted to speak exclusively to the black experience. It's an ambitious 21-track "confessional autobiography and meditation on being black in America," as per the album's own notes.

Identity, empowerment, independence, rage, grief and healing are a conduit of the album.

Delicate opener "Rise" sees Solange singing a brief, hushed interlude that feels like a soothing lullaby:  "Fall in your ways so you can crumble / fall in your ways so you can sleep at night / fall in your ways so you can wake up and rise."

She confesses her worries for the world over lush organs and guitars on "Weary," and she airs out her frustration on being pegged as the "angry black woman" over a bouncy, vintage soul beat on "Mad," a song that features a biting verse from Lil Wayne.

"I'm tired," she sighs on "Borderline (An Ode to Self Care)." It's a line that speaks deeply to the exhaustion felt in the black community .

Though she spent three years recording the album, "A Seat at the Table" is a potent work of black empowerment and protest that comes at a crucial time. It's topical and urgent, reflecting the anger and unease of this divisive political season.

For many black Americans, this is a time of pain. Debates on race relations and law enforcement have dominated the national conversation, and become a flashpoint of this year's presidential race. Solange deftly explores the feelings that come with being told you're not good enough, smart enough, beautiful or worthy enough due to the color of your skin.

On one of the album's interludes, her father, Mathew Knowles, details the horror of being spat on and having cans thrown at him for being one of seven to integrate a school. In another, her mother, Tina Lawson, meditates on the inherent threat that's been attached to celebrating one's blackness.

"It really saddens me when we're not allowed to express that pride in being black, and that if you do, then it's considered anti-white," she said. "No, you're just pro-black, and that's OK, because the two don't go together."

The album is tied together by narration from hip-hop mogul Master P. He launched a rap empire in No Limit Records and did so while staying independent. "What do you think I'm worth if this white man offer me a million dollars," he says on a narration that precedes "F.U.B.U."

Named after the popular, black-owned fashion line from the '90s, the horn-driven and jazzy number is a jubilant, defiant anthem of blackness that she makes clear is strictly "for us by us" due to its heavy employment of the N-word: "Don't feel bad if you can't sing along, just be glad you got the whole wide world," she quips.

Solange.
Solange. (Courtesy of Saint Heron/Columbia Records)

It's her exploration of the nuances of black life that makes this one of the year's standouts. Even in a time when black pop artists have grown especially political, the work feels critical.

"Don't Touch My Hair," for instance, is an electro-funk number that's a testimony to the discomfort that many have felt at work or at a bar when un-invited fingers have suddenly appeared to traverse one's scalp.Then "Don't You Wait" briefly touches on her feelings surrounding the exchange she had with a white New York Times journalist after she admonished the way he had written about R&B music.

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Yet despite being rooted in hurt or frustration or anger , there's a great deal of jubilance . Even when she sings about trying to drink, smoke, sex or dance away her pain on "Cranes in the Sky" she does so over a sparkling production.

Her first album, 2003's "Solo Star," aligned itself with the sassy, pop-tinged R&B one would expect from a teenager who first broke out as a backup dancer for Destiny's Child, the girl group that catapulted her older sister, Beyoncé, to stardom. Its underrated yet successful follow-up "Sol-Angel and the Hadley Street Dreams" showcased her knack for song-craft and mood setting.

That experimentation with a melange of R&B textures greatly informed her acclaimed 2012 EP "True," but whereas that project was a singular vision between her and co-producer Dev Hynes, she greatly widened her collaborators with her latest.

R&B architect Rapheal Saadiq co-produced the album alongside Solange, and while she wrote and arranged the entirety of the project, she tapped Questlove, Ray Angry, Magical Cloudz, Sampha and Sean Nicholas Savage for production work. Hynes, Tweet, Sampha, the Dream, BJ the Chicago Kid, Q-Tip, Lil Wayne, Moses Sumney, Kelly Rowland, Kelela and Nia Andrews all contributed vocals.

The message of "A Seat At the Table" extends beyond music. A digital art book, released on her site, accompanies the work (some lucky fans received a limited-edition hardcover edition).

One half of the book is dedicated to the lyrics and poetry Solange wrote for the project, while the other contains photos shot by Barcelona-based photographer Carlota Guerrero to celebrate black sister- and brotherhood.

Five decades after civil rights leader James Forman told young organizers "If we can't have a seat at the table then let's knock the ... legs off," Solange's beautifully nuanced and unapologetically black "A Seat at the Table" asks the question many have been screaming: "Where do we go from here?"

For more music news follow me on Twitter:@GerrickKennedy

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