Solange, a songstress for our times, has released a new album, "A Seat at the Table." It was four years in the making, which speaks to the deliberate and thoughtful message she wants the music to convey. It is our responsibility as music lovers, to dig in. I'll do that a little today, but primarily from a musical standpoint as that's my thing, you know.
The album faces complex emotional tones head on, yet remains captivating rather than alienating. Much of this comes from the topical content. For an in-depth and spot-on socio-political take, read the album review by Doreen St. Felix here. Go get a cup of coffee now because it's well worth your time to read the entire article. Go ahead. I'll wait.
Now that you've read that, I want to discuss a few of the musical attributes that make this album so stunning and fresh to the public.
The backing tracks have a certain minimalism that allows the vocal line to carry the bulk of the weight. And Solange carries it well. Her voice is smooth and mellow. Her tone is breathy and you get the sense she's right up on the mic. It gives her the opportunity to throw in plenty of croaks and the groans at the onset of words. The whole thing feels like a poem being sung just to us, in our bedroom. Yet she gives us choice moments of a full voice, as though she left us briefly to sing into some rafters at the church down the street. And like this we feel that she is both ours, and ours to share with the world.
She reaches the full extent of her range. Phrases often resolve on low notes that ride out an intimate thought. Yet, she does not shy away from using her upper range. In fact, she lives in her head voice for much of the album. This is one way in which she transforms what we've come to believe R&B is supposed to sound like. She doesn't come in and blow all the doors down with an open throated, mixed voice belt. Rather, she slides through her upper register, often in long, sustained pitches, over the sparse beats. It lends an airy quality to everything, as though to slowly permeate the space, rather than flood it all at once.
For an example of these floating melodies watch the video for "Cranes in the Sky." Note that the final note is a high Db - an atmospheric soprano ringing indeed.
Don't get me wrong, I love heavy bass tracks, and I love music that is bigger than life, but this album does not do that sonically. The space it takes up is a slow burn of sorts. A sway instead of a swagger. A pulse rather than a pump.
A notable example from the album is "Mad", featuring Lil Wayne.
It opens with a slow drum beat, just a bit of kick and light on the snare, and a handful of lovely chords played on piano - borrowing equally from a jazz ballad as from a slow trap instrumental. And although she sings lyrics such as, "I got a lot to be mad about," while the backup singers intone, "Be mad, be mad, be mad," it feels like a meditation on the right be fucking pissed off.
When Lil Wayne enters twice to rap during the song, he comes across as more authentic than I've ever heard him. He doesn't need to shout or grunt, but only to punctuate his lyrics ever so slightly to convey a deeply seeded frustration that we get the sense he's living with and working through. So human and real.
It's as though this song is the answer to the well known James Baldwin quote, "To be a negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all of the time." Solange, here, brings us an artistic vision of what this looks like and feels like to her. Importantly, it's in the music that she conveys this so multi-dimensionally.
Listen for yourself.
It's one thing to write lyrics that speak to a human experience - and the lyrics themselves might be enough to resonate with an audience. However, an artist can create an environment for the lyrics to live in. With Solange it's as though the lyrics are but one creature that exists in a complete biosphere. Take the time to get to know her ecosystem and you may find yourself a more enlightened citizen of the world.
[Purchasing albums, from digital platforms or your local record store, help support musicians who sacrifice pretty much everything for the sake of creating life-changing sounds.]
This post is part of the Sunday Listens series where I post about music that's exciting/interesting to me. Sometimes from the perspective of a voice teacher and usually on Sundays. Get your week started right with awesome tuneage.