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Solange Knowles' 'A Seat at the Table': EW Review

The artist’s excellent album radiates universal beauty in the tradition of soul greats like Stevie Wonder.

Updated

We gave it an A

If you’re familiar with Solange Knowles through gossip websites, you know that she’s Beyoncé’s outspoken younger sister. But if you know the 30-year-old New Orleanian on her own terms through her music, you already understand that she’s been making it kaleidoscopically colorful and ever-changing since 2003, and stepping up her creativity and central role in its production as she progresses.

With A Seat at the Table, her third album and first since 2012’s head-turning EP True, she fully arrives as a major artist on what she herself describes as “a project on identity, empowerment, independence, grief and healing.” It’s a bold statement on what it means to be a proud and yet sometimes anguished black woman in 2016, and it’s also her most individuated work to date. Solange gets political by also making Seat stunningly personal and poetic.

“This s— is for us,” she proclaims in “F.U.B.U.,” the album’s most direct, unambiguous statement on an otherwise dreamlike record that’s often elliptical and open to interpretation. Named after the FUBU apparel line created by and for African-Americans, the song confronts racism and appropriation while identifying in no uncertain terms her intended primary audience – not just her people, but also specifically her child: “I hope my son will bang this song so loud,” Knowles sings, “That he almost makes his walls fall down / ’Cause his momma wants to make him proud.”

And yet Seat is an album that white America needs to hear not just for reasons of empathy and education. Much of it co-produced by neo-soul vet Raphael Saadiq but also featuring cameos, narration, and instrumentation by guests ranging from Lil Wayne and Master P to Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth, the album radiates universal beauty and truth in the tradition of Stevie Wonder and Minnie Ripperton—and the whole world could simply use more of that. Much of this jazz-like yet emphatically contemporary set isn’t instantly catchy or danceable, but it is inviting. From the vocal harmonies of the opening cut “Rise” to the horns of “Closing: The Chosen Ones,” Knowles casts a spiritual vibe through the sophistication of her music and the purity of its intent: she wants us to know Solange and all that goes with it.

KEY TRACKS

Cranes in the Sky

A lonely song about pain avoidance and the trouble that can bring, Solange aches as deep as the soaring melody gets mighty high.

Don’t Touch My Hair

This daughter of a hairdressing entrepreneur spins a melancholy metaphor of black identity out of clueless white curiosity in her natural ‘do. Don’t!