2016, if you can recall, was quite a frenzied year. It’s a period of time that many people would very much like to forget — the passing of too many iconic figures; the flaring of social tensions; and a surprising presidential election, just to name a few things.
2016, in slight contrast, was also a monumental year for the Knowles family — especially for Solange. Her album, A Seat At The Table, was perhaps one of the year’s most luminescent moments, despite the fact that it dealt with some pretty cloudy material — it was a deeply personal reflection on the complications of being a Black woman in America, navigating microaggressive/macroaggressive spaces, managing sadness and anger, and attempting to find answers and heal through all of it. The timing of its release couldn’t have been more appropriate: right in the midst of highly publicized bouts of police brutality, widespread discussions on issues of race, and an election that held huge implications for many minority racial groups. But more so than its honesty, relatability, and necessity, Solange’s ability to make us feel — through her soulful writing, her smooth vocals, and the beautifully-arranged production — is what made ASATT such a special experience.
Having effectively moved out of the shadow of her superstar sister, there was a lot of excitement surrounding another Solange release, but what she delivers on When I Get Home is very different from the ASATT Part 2 that many of us had in mind.
When compared to A Seat At The Table, whose lyrics were direct and whose meaning was fairly straightforward, Solange’s latest album seems to feature a lot less lyrical depth, instead favoring repetitive clauses which often have ambiguous significance.
But just like Stevie Wonder’s The Secret Life of Plants — an album that Solange stated was an inspiration during the writing of her album, and one that Wonder himself described as an “experimental project” — When I Get Home is much more experimental than Solange’s previous work. What makes her latest album so interesting is that it also feels a lot freer, as Knowles’ decides not to crowd the 39-minute runtime with too much context and verbiage, leaving the listener to use more context to deduce the meaning.
And for the record, it seems that that’s exactly what Solange wanted out of this album: in a profile with Vice, Knowles’ said, “This album isn’t about vocal performance or just words out loud. I tried to create everything I had to say with sonics and frequency. This is really about the way that I feel. Feelings.” She reiterated, in an interview with Pitchfork, that “words would have been reductive to what I needed to feel and express. It’s in the sonics for me.”
So what exactly is it that she wants us to experience? Well, as the title of the album suggests, and similar to what Travis Scott did with Astroworld last year/Dawn Richard did with New Breed earlier this year, Solange is trying to give listeners a glimpse of home — her literal home of Houston, TX — as well as her state of mind, three years removed from the biggest year of her life.
Beyond the numerous geographical/landmark references she makes to her hometown (“S McGregor,” “Almeda,” “Beltway,” “Exit Scott,” etc.), Knowles takes us back to Houston by paying homage to the city’s hip-hop culture, making lyrical references to candy paint lowriders on songs like “Way to the Show,” as well as sonic references to chopped ‘n screwed hip-hop (an export of Houston, pioneered by the late legend DJ Screw) in her palate of heterogeneous, jazz-based instrumentals. This fusion of musical subcultures, all of which are rooted in Black culture, gives listeners the impression that in Solange’s ideal world, trap music is considered just as elegant as jazz and soul — and thanks to a panel of talented producers like Panda Bear, Pharrell Williams, Dev Hynes, Tyler the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Steve Lacy, Metro Boomin, and Knowles herself, the album does a pretty good job of making it all actually sound elegant too.
In this world that Solange has “imagined,” Blackness reigns supreme. This is best embodied by the Playboi Carti & The-Dream -assisted song “Almeda,” in which she chants a repeated refrain that celebrates Black ownership — “Black skin, Black braids, Black waves…these are Black-owned things.” It’s the most “Houston-sounding” song on the entire project and one of the album’s blackest moments. From the production down to the chorus, Solange manages to put Blackness front and center, simultaneously providing the audience with a clear picture of what Solange appreciates most about her home and upbringing in Houston’s Third Ward.
Solange’s artistic direction on When I Get Home is also indicative of her evolution as a person since ASATT‘s release. Not only is she a lot more meditative, which we can infer by the repetition of various maxims throughout the album — “I saw things I imagined” and “Dreams, they come a long way, not today” — but she also sounds a lot happier. At about the 55-second mark on the song “My Skin My Logo,” we’re treated to a really pure moment where Solange continues rapping through the middle of a spirited laugh. It’s almost as if we are right there in the studio, laughing along with her at the elementary and humorous nature of her bars. It sounds, as she verified in the Vice profile, like she had “a fucking blast” when she was making this album.
It’s such a pronounced difference from ASATT, which was definitely heartfelt and beautiful but also slightly more melancholy in tone. Solange has moved out of that period of brooding into a much more jubilant headspace. It’s obvious that her pilgrimage back home was as cathartic and joyous as it was reflective and meditative.