Solange’s fourth studio album, A Seat at the Table, is a soft-sounding record about hard realities that seamlessly blends R&B, soul, funk and hip hop. Over the album’s 21 tracks (eight of which are spoken interludes), Solange and Co. craft a poignant portrait of Blackness in the 21st century, a so-called “post-racial” existence in which unarmed Black men are killed by police regularly.
Opening track “Rise,” inspired by police killings and subsequent protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, repeats the chorus three times: “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,” before switching to “Walk in your ways, so you won’t crumble / Walk in your ways, so you can sleep at night / Walk in your ways, so you will wake up and rise” on the final recitation. It tonally establishes the theme of the album as being true to one’s identity in moments of ease and adversity. The track’s slow pace and instrumental emphasis on understated bass lines and piano leave the heaviest lifting to Solange’s vocals, which are delivered smoothly.
There’s not a bad track on A Seat at the Table. Hell, there isn’t even an OK track — they’re all genuinely good, most great. The album’s pace is assisted by a diverse number of spoken interludes and masterfully selected and executed features. The most on-the-nose and memorable of the interludes, spoken by Solange’s mother, delivers the album’s underlying knowledge: “There’s such beauty in Black people.”
But as her mother articulates, oppression comes with the beauty of being Black. Solange carries this beauty and oppression throughout the record, leading to its most beautiful and dynamic moments. “Cranes in the Sky” ’s unwavering instrumentation mimics the constant pain Solange tries to avoid as her voice shifts between delicate and powerful. “Mad” speaks directly to the label of being an angry Black woman; Solange floats, “Why you always gotta be, why you always gotta be so mad? / I got a lot to be mad about” over funky bass, and Lil Wayne delivers some of his best work this decade. “Don’t Touch My Hair” sees Solange likening her hair to her pride, her soul and her crown, but she finally settles on “this hair is my shit.” The message may be for those who “don’t understand what it means to (her),” but the track is a bold celebration of natural hair as a deeply integrated part Black womanhood (not to mention, the unforgettable Sampha-assisted chorus).
The album’s centerpiece, “F.U.B.U.” (stands for “For Us By Us,” a reference to a ’90s clothing which gained prominence), is defiant (“This shit is for us”), unapologetic (“I hope my son will bang this song so loud / That he almost makes his walls fall down / Cause his momma wants to make him proud / Oh, to be us”) and above all realistic: “Don’t feel bad if you can’t sing along / Just be glad you got the whole wide world.” Tackling cultural appropriation and being Black in predominantly white spaces, “F.U.B.U.” doesn’t attempt to distract from the ugliness of that reality. Instead, it lays it bare, allowing Solange’s voice and narrative to stand as the song’s backbone.
Following “F.U.B.U.” A Seat at the Table is decidedly more upbeat, mixing techno and pop elements into the production. The tempo picks up on “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care),” but is most memorable on “Junie” thanks to the album’s most outright production, boasting an infectious piano section and Andre 3000’s bubbling “Jump On It” chorus. Danceable sound aside, the track nonetheless lays on some heavy knowledge, articulating cultural appropriation through a fresh lens: “You want to be the teacher / Don’t want to go to school / Don’t want to do the dishes / Just want to eat the food.”
A Seat at the Table articulately brings together the greater public discussion of racial politics and the individualistic experience of being a Black woman with nuance and narrative by way of an incredible album. In closing, with a glorious horn backing, Master P states, “Now, we come here as slaves, but we going out as royalty, and able to show that we are truly the chosen ones.”