A Seat At The Table (Sony)
“Why you got to be so angry? Haven’t we done so much already for you?
“Sure, it’s not perfect but compared to a generation or two ago it’s a huge difference. You got jobs, including the biggest one in the country. You dominate sports and can get into colleges and schools without being bussed or escorted in by armed servicemen. You run the pop world don’t you, making yourselves millions and marrying celebrities, and you’re even winning Oscars.
“Can’t you acknowledge that instead of berating us for, you know, not being perfect? Can’t you see how we’re suffering too? You think it’s easy being white, male and running things all the time? And now you want to take away what’s ours and has always been ours. Victims? I’ll give you victims. Is there a white history month? No. Is that fair? No.”
You don’t have to be American or black or even that smart to hear the beating back of not just rights but sensibility in those oft repeated arguments. You don’t need to tally up the police shootings in any particular week or listen in while Trump supporters, Fox commentators or the feral end of the radio dial bemoan the end of the world as they knew it, to get the point of Black Lives Matter.
And you don’t have to confine yourself to occasional rappers, media figures or those BLM activists to hear not just opposition voices but alternative ones. Take for example Solange. (As with sister Beyonce, Solange Knowles doesn’t need a surname thank you very much.)
Don’t misread the title of her third album though: Knowles isn’t asking for a seat at the table. Across this album of affirmation and understanding, of weariness (at the fight still needing to be fought) but also determination (that it will be won) she’s showing that seat is hers by right, has been for generations and there isn’t a sensible discussion to be had about it. Not least because “we came here as slaves but we’re going out as lords”.
She’s also showing that the table is only half the story: that being absent from it does not define failure; that achievement in survival is nothing small but actually a great success; that she will define herself, not us, and realising that is what’s really meant by knowing “your place in the world”.
With distinctly personal material Knowles makes a straightforward case for lives that matter.
It’s in the spoken interludes where her father, Matthew, reflects on the practicalities of structural and institutionalised racism in the 1950s and ‘60s (he was one of the first black students integrated at his school and felt the brunt of that, physically then and for years later in his own anger), and her mother, Tina, explains how black pride is not the opposite of white pride, but its pair.
It’s in songs which look at her family’s history in Louisiana and its restart and continued evolution in Texas as emblematic rather than exceptional. And it’s in songs of plain spoken resistance to identity being moulded or judged by others, such as the slow groove of Don’t Touch My Hair, Junie, and F.U.B.U. where she addresses those who would whine they’re being excluded here with “Don’t feel bad you can’t sing along/Just be glad you got the whole wide world.”
But it’s also peppered with the stories/thoughts of others, such as the strong contributions of burgeoning mogul Master P (Percy Miller) explaining the rise and ripples of his No Limit Records label and other enterprises, and rapper Lil’ Wayne, who shares Mad with its clear-eyed look at the way alienation breeds something deeper than anger.
Speaking of which, it won’t be so easy to throw the “angry woman” stick at Knowles either, one of the fatuous weapons directed at Beyonce’s album Lemonade and in particular the lead single, Formation, with its provocative note to police, politicians and general ignorance wrapped in a declaration of resistance.
A Seat At The Table doesn’t raise its voice to be heard, it just speaks clearly.
These are often tender songs, more likely to cruise than rush to the finish line. They spread out from the richness of ‘70s soul and the dreaminess of ‘80s R&B, a combination seen to stunning effect in the gorgeous Cranes In The Sky, to incorporate brassy funkiness and electro pop, such as Don’t You Wait.
You can swoon easily, dance smoothly and at times soar on melodies just as Knowles herself seems to swoop up and away. Want to get angry at someone’s anger? You’ll have to try bloody hard to dredge it up here.
It’s worth noting that there’s a crispness to the sound, richness in the textures and constant delights in the sonic undergrowth of this album. Even if you step away from the vocals you can drift on some serious bliss.
But production (by Knowles and Raphael Saadiq) is not what defines A Seat At The Table, no more than anger does; it’s the mind and spirit of Solange. And that has left us with a superb and vitally important album.