2016 seems to be the year that pop, especially from black artists, became political. Frank Ocean broke his long-awaited silence with the extraordinary Blonde album, a record that touched on an awful lot of subjects but especially the recent spate of police shootings of black people. Dev Hynes, under his Blood Orange alter-ego, produced a dense and rich study of racial identity on Freetown Sound. And, the most iconic pop star of them all, Beyoncé, sent middle America into a tizz with her homage to the Black Panthers at this year’s Superbowl half-time show.
Now, another member of the Knowles family has produced what could well turn out to be one of the most powerful albums of the year. Solange‘s third album may look like a mammoth, sprawling affair (it’s 21 tracks long, but actually only clocks in at just over 50 minutes), but it has a rare focus and pulses with energy and attitude. It’s a record that articulately and passionately celebrates what it means to be black in America, but never runs the risk of becoming a divisive polemic, while also containing some impossibly slinky RnB.
There’s also a sadness to A Seat At The Table that pretty much seeps through every track, but this never lapses into self-pity: instead, there’s an undercurrent of frustration and anger just bubbling under (“I’m weary of the ways of the world” runs the opening line of Weary). The stunning Cranes In The Sky is the perfect example, a languid, lush ballad exploring matters of depression and isolation: just the way Knowles sings “I tried to drink it away” is enough to raise the hairs on your arm. Don’t Touch My Hair is even better, a slowly unfurling epic incorporating horns, cowbells and co-vocalist Sampha as Knowles sings about racial identity and appropriation.
One thing that makes A Seat At The Table so powerful is the intensely personal touch that Solange infuses each song with. Every so often, an ‘interlude’ will appear, a minute-long stretch of dialogue from members of the Knowles family about what it meant to grow up black in America. So, Solange’s mother Tina gives a passionate and articulate description of why white people shouldn’t be threatened by things like Black History Month, and her father talks of growing up among KKK members and “living in the threat of death every day”. That latter interlude then segues into one of the album’s highlights, Mad, which features a blistering verse from Lil Wayne where he raps about drug addiction, suicide and people’s perceptions of him.
F.U.B.U is another gloriously celebratory track featuring the collective talents of The-Dream, BJ The Chicago Kid and ex-Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij rejoicing in the influence and inclusiveness of black culture around the world (“don’t feel bad if you can’t sing along, just be glad you got the world world…this shit is for us”), while Junie is another party anthem, dedicated to legendary funk performer Walter ‘Junie’ Morrison and featuring Andre 3000.
There’s no pure pop moments like Losing You and she may never generate the same amount of press inches as her elder sister does on a regular basis, but this third album is an endlessly compelling one. As rapper Master P intones on one of the interludes, This Moment, “I’m about to send a message to the world”. This is Solange’s message, and the world would do well to listen.