Last week, Solange Knowles released her third studio album, A Seat at the Table. She described the effort — which blends R&B, funk, soul, pop, and even a little spoken-word poetry — as “a project on identity, empowerment, independence, grief and healing.” The full spectrum of human emotion is on display here, from grief to jubilation and back again. It’s got a futuristic sound with mighty roots in Knowles’ past: In one interlude, Knowles’ father describes being bussed into a mostly-white school as a child. (He arrived with a phalanx of state troopers in tow to protect him from the Ku Klux Klan.) She knows where she came from; she is alternately joyful about and weary of the reality in which she lives. She has cautious optimism for what’s yet to come.
Reviews of the album are so glowing they’re practically radioactive: Knowles’ work here is “stunning, a thematically unified and musically adventurous statement on the pain and joy of black womanhood” (Pitchfork), “a fantastic-sounding LP” with a “powerful, political backbone” (Rolling Stone), “an expression of pride in black American womanhood” (Vulture).
A Seat at the Table feels like an invitation to gather around a hearth — or, as the case may be, a GChat — and hash out why this music resonates and what it means to listeners. So a group of four ThinkProgress writers —criminal justice reporter Carimah Townes, technology reporter Lauren Williams, social media coordinator Aria Velasquez, and culture editor Jessica Goldstein — did exactly that. Read on for that conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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Carimah Townes: Digesting and reviewing albums can be difficult — especially when you have a body of work with so much to unpack. If you could boil down the theme/overall message of this album in a word or short phrase, how would you summarize it?
Aria Velasquez: I’d summarize it as “getting comfortable and assertive.” Which is something Solange has been for a long time. Publicly, she’s always been the more outspoken of the Knowles sisters. Beyoncé is a cipher who you can only decode from her albums and her very carefully curated paparazzi photos. Solange is an open book, and this album is just another chapter.
Jessica Goldstein: There’s so much self-love here, too. It’s defiant about celebrating what she loves in her life — beauty and joy and family and her history — without glossing over what’s painful.
Lauren C. Williams: FUBU. I don’t know if you youngins remember the clothing line, but the distinctive style and power of proclaiming that these threads and in Solange’s case, these words and this music, is a celebration, an offering of being different, being black, struggling and being unified is beautiful even with the scars.
“Self-love is so important right now — with violence against us visible at all times, and mass appropriation and commodification of our experience everywhere you look. This album came out at the exact moment it needed to.”
CT: Definitely! I’d boil it down to “self-discovery.” The first half of the album has a lot of “searching and finding” imagery: “Fall in your ways” (“Rise”), “I’m gonna look for my body yeah” (“Weary”), and trying to find peace of mind in “Cranes in the Sky.” Later in the album, she’s coming into her own as a black person — a black woman. She’s finding her place in a community. And, as Aria said, she’s becoming comfortable and assertive throughout.
From “Interlude: Tina Taught Me”:
“I think part of it is accepting that there is so much beauty in being black, and that’s the thing I guess I get emotional about, because I’ve always known that. I’ve always been proud to be black… It’s such beauty in black people. And it really saddens me when we’re not allowed to express that pride in being black, and that if you do, it’s considered anti-white. No, you’re just pro-black, and that’s okay… Because you celebrate black culture does not mean that you don’t like white culture… What’s irritating is when someone says, they’re racist, that’s reverse-racism.”
JG: Even though the tone of this music is less confrontational than, say, some of the work Solange’s sister has produced lately, there’s this beautiful political statement just woven in between the songs — these spoken-word interludes from her parents, really overtly addressing what the music is talking about. I’m curious what everyone thinks about including these riffs: It underlines what’s already there in the music, but it doesn’t feel redundant to me. It’s almost stating the obvious, and yet in this time of people responding to Black Lives Matter with a knee-jerk “…ALL lives matter,” it clearly needs to be said.
AV: I’m not sure if I would agree that this is less confrontational than Beyonce’s recent output. I think they’re two sides of the same coin. Beyoncé, for all her efforts to remain a private person as the biggest star in the world, has music that’s designed for public spaces. It’s for arenas and clubs and other places where you’d want to make loud pronouncements about who you are. Solange’s album is for those moments when you’re alone but you have to remind yourself, “Hey, I’m pretty damn cool.” I agree with what Jess said about “stating the obvious,” but every so often people need to be reminded of the obvious until it sinks in, whether it’s “Black Lives Matter” or “I love myself” or “KEEP YOUR FINGERS OUT OF MY HAIR.”
LW: I have strong feelings about hair touching. Especially since I just got my scalp felt up by TSA.
JG: That’s a great point, Aria. I think the difference isn’t intent but volume or scale — as you describe, Beyoncé is aiming for the arena. And A Seat at the Table has more of a conversational feel; more intimate, but just as impassioned. With “Don’t Touch My Hair,” I’m into the proclamation that follows the opening line: “It’s the feelings I wear.” This idea that your hair can be your identity, if you want it to be; it’s this cool inversion of the “I Am Not My Hair” mantra from India.Arie, two ruminations on the same experience of people sizing a black woman up based on how she styles her hair.
CT: Frankly, I’m here for Tina always. I’m glad she got some shine, because she’s clearly raised two enormously talented and woke women. When I heard the interlude, my main thought was: They got it from Tina. The message itself was obvious, but knowing that this dope black woman raised two conscious daughters made me feel proud to be black. It reified my own sense of community — that we’re all in this together. Does that make sense?
“I identified with wrestling for a place in society and for an identity in a world where you’re not ever accepted as white, but you do receive privileges and scorn for having a lighter complexion or certain features.”
AV: I want to go to Houston just to have the possible chance of driving by Tina on the freeway. Is that weird?
JG: I love that Tina is so unapologetically an adult. In a culture that is all about youth-worship, she exudes this life experience and maturity that is refreshing and authoritative.
CT: It’s also amazing that this album came out the same year as Lemonade — particularly the visual album. The focus on blackness and empowerment from two sisters with two different approaches adds breadth to this discussion of self-love and community. Do you think the albums are comparable?
JG: I think Beyoncé wants to be seen and heard by a mass audience, and that shapes the way she tells her stories and expresses her opinions. Some of the lyrics and visuals on Lemonade are explicitly about race, about police brutality, about oppression and liberation. But it’s also totally possible to consume Lemonade primarily as a gorgeous, catchy tell-all about Jay Z’s rumored infidelity and Beyoncé’s journey from discovery to fury to forgiveness. You don’t have to look further than that. You’ll miss so much of what makes the album transcendent, but, save for a few tracks/videos, you can extricate what’s personal from what’s political and just think of it as pop music. Solange’s album doesn’t really give you that escapist option. It is all-in on its subject matter.
CT: Right, I think if you look at the two albums, song for song, they’re quite different, stylistically and lyrically. There’s no “6 Inch” or “Don’t Hurt Yourself” on A Seat at the Table. But I do think they’re both about personal journeys and, in the end, celebrate blackness and self-empowerment and how the two go hand in hand.
AV: Comparing these albums is like comparing… I don’t know, French fries and milkshakes: both delicious, and probably good when paired together, but still two completely different things.
LW: They’re also completely different artists who don’t even play in the same space. They just share genetic material and as sisters we try to make as many connections as possible.
AV: Do you think this album could’ve been released and gotten the same reception in any other year?
LW: Definitely not. We’re in a time of hyper-awareness as it comes to some of the plights facing black people. Just like Beyoncé was able to ride the feminism wave with her eponymous album and songs like “Flawless,” the fact that mainstream media is paying attention to, scrutinizing, and chronicling the police shooting deaths of black men and women provides a perfect atmosphere for us to push through and embrace our blackness in bold ways. Lauryn Hill and Jill Scott famously said their music wasn’t for the majority and their responses were received as “reverse racism” and divisive even among black people. But that was 20 years ago, and here Solange is saying “this is me, this is our story, this is for us and by us.”
JG: Completely agree. I also don’t know that Solange would have been driven to write this album in any other year.
LW: Yeah, tensions have been building significantly for decades of course but particularly since Trayvon Martin and Ferguson. We’re tired and Solange is expressing the frustration of the young adults and of the time.
CT: Agree with all of the above. In any other year, it would’ve gotten some attention, but not the commercial success it’s had so far. I think we’re definitely at a point when black people want to consume art made specifically for us, by us. Self-love is so important right now — with violence against us visible at all times, and mass appropriation and commodification of our experience everywhere you look. This album came out at the exact moment it needed to. And its wide reception is proof — sort’ve like the National Museum of African American History and Culture being filled to the brim every day since its opening. There’s a hunger for kinship.
AV: Perfect year, perfect time of year. Right as we were coming down off a long, hot summer and putting away the summertime club bangers, Solange showed up and gave us a gift.
LW: I hate to be that person but…while A Seat at the Table is objectively a work of art and honed craft — what didn’t we like about it?
AV: I wasn’t a fan of “Mad,” but that’s more about me not being a fan of Lil Wayne than anything else. It might grow on me as I listen to the album more.
CT: To be honest, I haven’t gotten past the “YES, GIRL” listening phase. I’m still basking in its joy, and haven’t given much thought to what I don’t like about it.
LW: Ha! Yeah, fangirl-ing over this album is real and well deserved. Outside of the Dream’s fake island accent in FUBU (insert extreme side-eye), my main criticism is that I wish the interludes had more voices. They’re heavily focused on Master P, who drops actual wisdom every time he speaks. But I do wish that we had heard from other people who influenced her personally since intimacy and identity are core values in this album.
JG: Is it too evil record executive of me to wonder if this only works as an album, a.k.a., doesn’t have obvious singles? Does it matter anymore? Are we in a brave new post-singles world?
LW: Hahaha! It’s a cohesive body of work and should be enjoyed as such. But “Cranes in the Sky” is radio ready.
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CT: We’re not quite in a post-singles era, but albums as a whole are definitely getting more play. In the past couples of years, I’ve noticed that black artists in particular — Solange, NAO, Beyoncé, Kendrick, Rihanna — have created full listening experiences in a way that popular artists haven’t for years. And when people talk about their work, they always talk about it holistically, before breaking down the power of each song/single.
AV: Jess, I kind of hope we’re in a post-singles world. I’d like to see more albums from my favorite artists that have really long and intricate story arcs. I’ll be very happy if Solange leads the charge.
“Beyoncé… has music that’s designed for public spaces. It’s for arenas and clubs and other places where you’d want to make loud pronouncements about who you are. Solange’s album is for those moments when you’re alone but you have to remind yourself, ‘Hey, I’m pretty damn cool.’”
CT: Since A Seat at the Table, at its heart, is an ode to blackness, I’m really curious to know how non-black people listen and relate to it. I hate to put you on the spot, Jess, but did you feel like you were able to connect to it at all? Was there a part of you that thought “nah, this isn’t made for me?”
JG: The cop-out answer is: Good music is good music, and the best stuff is universal. But I don’t want to suggest there isn’t something vital in the specificity of what Solange is describing, how being a black woman in this particular cultural moment shapes her sense of self. I think as a listener who isn’t a black woman, there’s still plenty to relate to here. But there’s also real value in what you can empathize with but never totally get the way you get a life you’ve actually lived. There’s that element of exploration, of getting to hear a story or a voice that you would never have been able to create yourself. And I appreciate that I can both share what she’s feeling — the grief in “Rise,” to take one example — and allow that there’s a level on which it’s not for me, it’s not one-to-one. And that’s more than okay; there’s value in that kind of listening experience.
LW: I’m black, but to build on Jess’ comment, I think for me I connected with the frustration and grief and struggles depicted throughout as a lighter-skinned person. The colorism within the black community has deep roots, so with songs like “Rise” and “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “Mad,” I identified with wrestling for a place in society and for an identity in a world where you’re not ever accepted as white, but you do receive privileges and scorn for having a lighter complexion or certain features.