Some four years since she released the beautiful, Losing You, as a lead single for her third album that never appeared, Solange Knowles (Lil Beyoncé) has finally released a new album. A Seat at the Table is almost entirely co-written by Solange and influential 90’s R&B singer and musician Raphael Saadiq, who’s work on iconic neo-soul records like D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, are the template for 2016s spate of brilliant soul records coming from the likes of Frank Ocean, Noname and Kehlani. Solange, who’s been heavily involved with New York’s indie pop community since being signed to Chris Taylor from Grizzly Bears Terrible Records makes good use of her rolodex, with members of bands such as TV On The Radio, Vampire Weekend, The Dirty Projectors and Majical Cloudz having writing and production credits throughout the record, affording her a level of understated sheen often lost amongst the maximalist pomp of her older sister’s work. The sound of the record flirts between the retro-futuristic funk of these influences and the classic R&B minimalism of Saadiq who recaptures the kind of soulful magic that has his talents back in high demand.
Although this lends the album a distinctive New York flavor, Solange kept the record attached to her roots by recording it in the rural New Orleans town where her grandparents met and featuring interludes from an unlikely inspiration, No Limit Records Master P who tells the success story of his once mighty label. She avoids the typical token radio single that normally gets wedged awkwardly in the middle of most mainstream R&B releases and the closest she gets is a guest verse from Lil Wayne. But what we get is not the typical braggadocio punchline rap that’s defined his work of late but probably the best and most honest verse the rapper has given in years, with Wayne opening up about a suicide attempt in his youth and relating it to his ongoing struggle with his mental health on the excellent ‘Mad’.
Despite the collaborative nature of the record, Solange is the real star of the show. This is her first record released in a truly public scope (none of her other releases are on iTunes), she’s just turned 30 and the cohesive thematic range of the album shows the maturity you’d expect of an artist her age. This isn’t a party record, but a feel good record, full of reflection and positive affirmations and lyrically, the album is intensely personal, with Solange frequently reflecting on civil rights issues that have affected her and her family over the years as well as strong statements of black female identity on Don’t Touch My Hair and the brilliant Kelela duet Scales. The album is full of stories of pain sorrow but never defeat and it’s at the climax of this track when the two singers intertwine in perfect harmony to proclaim ‘you are a superstar’ that we get the overriding theme of the record spelt out for us. In the absence of headline grabbing controversy that often surrounds her sisters work, Solange has quietly produce a record that soars to even higher heights.
Words by ALEX WHITNEY