So I’m going to start this review with two neutral statements that nevertheless are bound to be controversial. The first is this: we primarily experience art emotionally – we might analyze or come to appreciate something intellectually later, but ultimately if we’re giving an honest opinion on what moves us and what we’ll revisit, it’s emotional. And to follow that, #2: when the statement is made, ‘it’s not for you’, that’s a statement presumably made to speak to the emotional, lived-in experiences that is assumed to be held by someone who likes the art and how said experiences probably aren’t held by someone for whom the art isn’t clicking.
So why mention any of this? Well, it has to do with the larger discourse around Solange‘s critical acclaim in the past couple of years, especially surrounding her breakthough A Seat At The Table, a project I liked and understood but didn’t love. And I even said in that review that it’s not for me – I can certainly respect its appeal and thoughtfulness and I understand the text and subtext on display, but I was very much aware that it was marketed at an audience to which I don’t belong. And let me stress this: that’s fine! There’s absolutely a place and market for that, and while I might make the argument the most powerful art can transcend emotive boundaries should it be heard by everyone, I’m also aware of the material that resonates most with me won’t be to the tastes of everyone: that’s why my favourite albums of the past five years have spanned an indie country compilation, a pop rock opera, multiple underground hip-hop tapes, and a twisted slice of jazzy adult-alternative blended with goth rock!
Now where I take the most issue with the whole ‘it’s not for you’ statement is when it’s used as a defense mechanism to shield a project from criticism of the text or subtext, which of course hits the blurry line of whether the person understands it and that art is subject to multiple interpretations, but that’s a conversation of nuance and detail, not defense. And with A Seat At The Table, it didn’t really come up, mostly because the album was critically acclaimed across the board – more degrees of quality being disputed if anything. But the conversation surrounding the surprise release When I Get Home has been more mixed, and outside of the outlets that have a mandate to support it, I’ve seen the ‘it’s not for you’ argument pushed more as a deflection surrounding the project’s quality, coupled with the presumed lack of understanding. To me that was alarming, so I did proceed with both caution and curiosity into this listen… so what did I find?
Okay, I’ve given this project a fair bit of time to sink in – I wasn’t about to rush a review out when the project dropped last week, given that this is a mood album and I needed to be sure I could set the mood effectively, really try to sink into the watery blur of samples and g-funk and trap that constitutes this project… and after comfortably a dozen listens, I wound up pretty much where I expected I would: a project I can mostly respect, but don’t really like as much. It’s more fragmented and reliant on texture over substance, and as such it doesn’t wind up being as resonant as A Seat At The Table – more experimental, sure, but a little less than the sum of its parts.
Actually, let’s step away from that statement, because the fact that there are so many disparate parts on this project is kind of integral to the album’s themes and ideas… for as much as they can be deciphered. For as much as A Seat At The Table was a strident but gentle refocus in consciously ignoring white expectations to embrace black femininity, here Solange is burrowing deeper into what that represents for her – and what she finds is a composite picture. There are plentiful references to her childhood home in Houston – including a few cursory mentions of DJ Screw that feel oversold in this album’s defense – but there’s also watery G-funk pulled from California and brittle Atlanta trap, all of which is set against a scattered arc of reconciling what her place at that table actually is – or indeed, if there’s only one place to be taken. And a major part of this seems to be linked to sexuality, or at least coming to how she is perceived as a sexual being – coming off of A Seat At The Table, I can see how she might have felt she was perceived as gentle or sensual without being sexual, and this project seeks to reassert and reconcile that facet of her being without giving up her spiritual focus. There’s a great focus on subtle repetition and mantras, and the notes of repetition common in mainstream trap take on a deeper flavour and resonance.
That’s the intention… or for as much as I can tell. Again, this is an album that speaks through blurry pseudo-spiritual language and abstraction, owing more to ambient music and new age rather than traditional song structures in jazz or R&B, and indeed, while some of the slippery groove patterns might owe something to jazz, the timbres here spread a lot wider… and yet I wish it came together more. I understand that the discordance and abrupt shifts fit the themes in showing the contrasting elements of Solange’s personality, but they don’t make for a project that flows well or even has a consistent emotional vibe. More to the point, while you can tell that Solange has the gravity to convey these sorts of introspective ideas – we’ll come back to her vocals in a minute, but when she has the support of good multi-tracking she has that presence – I’m not remotely convinced her guest stars can deliver the same presence. I’m no Playboi Carti fan to begin with, but for an artist whose fundamental appeal is disposability, it’s weird to see him asked to convey more on ‘Almeda’. And then there’s Gucci Mane on ‘My Skin My Logo’… look, even if I’m not to be cynical and say this is a Gucci ad waiting to happen, Solange is a better hype woman for the glam of the song than he is, and he just doesn’t fit – and if I’m being brutally honest, even if their contributions are more backing vocals and adlibs, I’m not sure Panda Bear, Sampha, or even Tyler fit in much either. The-Dream kind of makes sense, but even then for the haze of mirrors that Solange arranges, I have to wonder if this was best conveyed alone.
But this takes us to vocal delivery… and I already implied it but I’ll say it again: I’m not convinced Solange has the versatility to convey all the facets she’s trying on this project. Sensual R&B with plentiful multi-tracking is her best lane, but stripped more of that out and the thinness in her timbre is evident, and that’s before we get her attempts at rapping or a more swaggering delivery that lack the force of personality to have more potency. But I’d probably say that about most of the production as well, because divorced from any real song structure you rely upon tones and moments to really stand out, and across this project it’s hit-and-miss. On the one hand, I can appreciate the watery fizz and flex of ‘Stay Flo’, the more developed subtle melodies on ‘Dreams’ backed by Raphael Saadiq on bass – probably my favourite cut here if that’s even something that can be quantified with this project – the ghostly melancholy of ‘Beltway’, and especially Pharrell’s thrumming brittleness backing ‘Sound Of Rain’. But the sequencing rarely allows these moments to drift together naturally, and while I can appreciate the shuddering g-funk of ‘Down With The Clique’, the tones gradually feel less developed and spare, and if you come looking for a hook or even a more lush instrumental, you’re going to be disappointed. And it’s hard not to feel like this project is trying to split the difference of two disparate worlds, one where the songs and moods are more defined and hard-hitting to encapsulate those nuggets of emotion, and the other where it’s more of a tone poem reliant on subtlety… but in the former every once and a while you need a hook, and in the latter it helps to have flow and sequencing, and this project is lacking in both.
So as a whole… look, when I reviewed A Seat At The Table I said that while I understood her message it was not an album for me, both in terms of its targeting and my reception, and that is just as true with When I Get Home, if not moreso. But for as much as I might respect this album’s intentions and ideas, the structural issues may hold this back from resonating outside a narrower audience to which the emotive connection will overrule any of those observations. And hey, nobody is immune to the allure of an album that hits our joy receptors and will not let go, that seems tailor-made for us… but there’s nothing wrong for acknowledging when it doesn’t quite hit the way it should, or did before. Now for me from outside… I’m thinking a solid 6/10, recommended for the fans, but if you were hooked by ‘Cranes In The Sky’ and A Seat At The Table, I’m not sure this’ll satisfy. But for Solange herself… I think she needed this, and I respect that.