Mark is one half of the music-focused podcast series, Pass Me The Aux, based in New York City. He is an aspiring music writer/entertainment critic, whose goals involve centering the stories and messages of marginalized groups in mainstream media. Follow Mark online at @so_mark_ on Instagram and Twitter.
Three months ago I recorded an episode for my podcast, Pass Me The Aux, in which my co-host and I chronicled the long, brilliant history of R&B, its cultural apex in the 1990s, and why, now more than ever, it is missing from the landscape of popular music. We had a few theories, some solutions and even more suggestions for the vanguard of the industry to “bring back R&B,” which you can listen to and cackle at later.
Was Solange listening to the podcast? I wish, but probably not. BUT, did she come through with the September 30 release of her third LP, A Seat at the Table? Yes, yes she did (can I get an amen?).
Had you asked me then, in July, following the well-received and much-needed R&B releases from the likes of: KING, Tweet, Musiq, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and others, whether Beyoncé’s little sister would also release one of my favorite records of all time, this year, I would’ve said a short, sweet no. Hell, had you asked me on September 29, it would’ve still been a “no for me, dawg.” No shade. Solange is historically dope and endlessly creative, and while I’ve been a fan of hers, her records have never made me rearrange my very carefully curated list of best-ofs in R&B. She changed that on September 30th.
A Seat at the Table, co-executive produced by Solange and R&B/Soul Legend, Raphael Saadiq, is not just an R&B record. It’s an amalgam of black art history and culture and language and movement and rhythm as it were–a course on the black experience in America through the lens of our evolution in music, because, is there a better way?
Sonically the album blurs the lines of time, which is appropriate, I suppose, since Solange created the album over a period of approximately 7 years. But beyond that, A Seat at the Table is both classic and fresh, familiar and unrecognizable. Solange managed to painstakingly and virtuosically craft a record that incorporates neo-soul and R&B and funk and hip-hop and gospel in practically every element of every song, like they go together, and in theory they do, but in practice, it can come across as messy or trying too hard. A Seat at the Table never has that problem. It is full without being cluttered. Even when, on “F.U.B.U.”, three or four voices at a time are crooning and moaning over a softly-playing piano, just seconds after Solange beckons her “niggas” to join in claiming an exclusive, cultural pride on a bass-thumping, southern hip hop-esque bounce beat, one can still see their way through what is often a heavily but tastefully decorated room without falling over chairs or stubbing a toe–it’s never crowded.
That sexy, deep bass is a recurring theme throughout, true to the nature of the musical genres that inspired the record, along with generous background harmonies reminiscent of old soul and quartet gospel music. Other elements include the organ, trumpets, nostalgic synths and beats of a drum machine. In addition to the aforementioned topic of black pride, the lyrics explore culturally familiar expressions of love, depression, gentrification, and healing; with the latter, the listener experiences much of the same.
For this reason, many have described A Seat at the Table as timely: a record for this moment, given the pain of black people in America, fortified by high unemployment, poverty, incarceration, intracommunity violence, trauma, anxiety, and police brutality, for starters.
I disagree. The album is not timely it is timeless. Not perfect, but the closest to perfection Solange has ever touched–and that’s actually saying a lot.
It is not lost on me that the album’s release coincides with the opening of America’s first museum dedicated to African American history. Nor that black people worldwide are growing more undaunted in their right to exist, to thrive, to be magic, with each passing day. And while this may archive our current dispensation in the way Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On did some 45 years ago, preserve our history as did Nina Simone or Stevie Wonder, many times over, this record will enlighten, empower, engulf and then heal its listener, just as those do, for decades, possibly centuries to come. That is the gift of black art: immortality.
Solange gets it, so I do feel “heard,” like my supplication has received a response. And like every other human who prospers from that acknowledgement, I am forever grateful