If there is an album to rival Frank Ocean's Blonde, in terms of minimalist R&B, used to maximum effect, it would be Solange's A Seat At The Table, her third and by far her best, album. While many may have seen her as doomed, living under her sisters larger than life shadow, fans of her music know something different, as Solange has been paving her own, very different path, and the masses are finally starting to notice.
Her 2003 debut LP, Solo Star, was a product of both the times and the pressure to measure up to the landscape that inhabited the then popular crowd. The record had it's fair share of talent on hand, with producers Timbaland, The Neptunes, and others lending their skills. As a result there are a few solid tracks, but overall, the album felt flat. Even more so now that we know how good she is when she's in her element; the straight pop release didn't give anyone a sense of her identity. But an extended break, along with a newfound sense of style would change that.
After a five year absence, she returned with her second LP, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, and just like that the real Solange was born. Tapping into the Motown sounds that had inspired her growing up, she crafted an album of retro modern grooves that couldn't be denied. Due to her ample time away, and the lack of her first record's success, she had a hard time bringing in the producers she wanted to assist on the record, but after sending them samples, her bucket list of co-writers/ producers hopped on board (Cee-Lo, Mark Ronson, Boards of Canada, etc.) and the result is spectacular. The album reaches and hits on almost all fronts, and while there are a few misses, it's far and away a leap forward for an artist finding her true sound. "Would've Been The One" and "Cosmic Journey" are my two favorites from the record.
2012 saw her next release, the EP True, which again featured a change of focus, this time to more of a neo-soul approach (think Erykah Badu). Emotionally, it was her most consuming release (she suffered a minor breakdown during its creation). The album, while struggling commercially, furthered her popularity among critics and fans. Though it's an EP, it maintains the feel of a record in both flow and consistency, which is due in large part to employing a single producer, Dev Hynes, on the record. I think the best part of the record is the combination of her bringing her throwback style with 80's electro R&B grooves, all wrapped into a contemporary style. It reminds me a bit of Jessie Ware, whose debut LP Devotion, was released the same year. However, where Jessie built on (and in my opinion, perfected) that style with her 2014 follow up Tough Love, Solange once again continued her progression of sound.
A Seat At The Table, while not a masterpiece, comes very close. Working in true concept fashion, it speaks both logically and emotionally, in reference to race, feminism, and the current state of things. And while her perspective is....dissimilar to mine (black female / white male), her message and views transcend that singular perspective, often presenting from a more general, human perspective. Everything here works. Even the interludes, which I am usually weary of, are both effective and poignant, adding to and empowering the albums message. The genres at play are all over the place, but always molded to a common feel, whether it be R&B, jazz, soul, funk, etc. it all works within the boundaries Solange has set, and with silky precision.
Even the records big guests, collaborating on some of my favorite songs, Q-Tip ["Borderline (An Ode To Self Care)"], Sampha ("Don't Touch My Hair"), and Lil Wayne ("Mad") among them, have no intention of stealing the spotlight, but rather adding to it. Everyone was chosen because they fit the bigger picture, and not just to draw in listeners from outside her fan base. As much as A Seat At The Table is a celebration of Solange's diverse and eclectic tastes, it's even more so a celebration of culture. This album plays like a dream, floating along beautifully, sliding in and out of transitions with delicacy and care. I'd say the strongest theme I pulled from it is perspective, a word I've mentioned multiple times, and Solange, in presenting hers, carries herself with pride, integrity and intelligence. This album isn't just Solange's best to date, but one of the best records of 2016, a placement which I have no doubt will stay until the end of the year. Not a bad 2016 for the Knowles family.