The surprise and pleasure of the last Solange record remains, almost two and a half years later, largely undimmed. When A Seat at the Table dropped in September 2016, America was on the cusp of a generation-defining election. The result of that election gave us the precise conditions of our current — and ongoing — moment, and added new texture to an already political record. On the eve of the inauguration of Donald Trump, she performed at the Peace Ball. Who among us, upon hearing Solange wearily sing “I’ve got a lot to be mad about,” didn’t nod in resignation and think, in the internet’s succinct language, “same”? There were the gleeful parroting of “don’t touch my hair” from T-shirts to Instagram captions; the lyric “I tried to work it away / But that just made me even sadder” from “Cranes in the Sky” described millennial burnout to a tee. In a strong year for the category (she was up against Rihanna’s “Needed Me”!), “Cranes” went on to win the Grammy for Best R&B Performance.
Since late 2016, Solange has been performing a series of slight reinventions, in which she explicitly expanded her noted interest and attention to art in general, and black artists such as Mickalene Thomas and Arthur Jafa in particular. Solange as performance artist has claimed space and time at venerated locations: she debuted “Scales” at the Menil Collection in her home city of Houston, before taking it to the Pérez Art Museum in Miami. She popped up, along with scores of black performers, at the Guggenheim to perform “An Ode To” and then returned home to Texas to perform “Scales” as a site-specific work at the Chinati Collection in Marfa. At Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum, she put on an interdisciplinary work called “Metatronia.” In London, she exhibited “Seventy States” at the Tate Modern, exploring black womanhood, inspired by Betye Saar’s art. In 2018, the Harvard Foundation named her “artist of the year.”
She has spent the last two years collaborating, scoring, writing, choreographing, sculpting, and performing.
In this time there has also been Solange as curator of a very specific black aesthetic — an ambassador of blackness who wasn’t all that interested in diplomacy. In this guise — fitting for the person behind the lyric “Don't touch my crown / They say the vision I've found” — hair became more than that which grows. She collaborated with hair artists like Shani Crowe and Jawara and Chuckie Amos to create looks that urged a deeper reading. There was the blonde braided upright halo that the Evening Standard Magazine erroneously magicked away (and apologized for after an admonishment — “dtmh” — from Solange). There was the other halo, worn for her debut on Saturday Night Live in a performance that mixed the choreography of ’60s girl bands with celestial majesty. And on the 2018 Met Ball red carpet, yet another halo, this time delicately positioned on the black-as-hell foundation of a durag. The night ended in her wearing a flowing durag, customized with “MY GOD WEARS A DURAG” in a font best described by Sylvia Obell, host of BuzzFeed’s Hella Opinions, as “Times Thug Life Roman.”
“'Cause his momma wants to make him proud / Oh, to be us,” she sang on “F.U.B.U.” and whether red, blonde, black, or brown, with beads and braids and artfully frizzed out, Solange wore her blackness, in her hair, and everywhere. She directed the music video for SZA’s “The Weekend.” She curated a campaign for Calvin Klein that featured musician friends Dev Hynes and Kelela, among others; it was called “Our Family.”
Yet even with all this Solange #content, there wasn’t any new music. We were restless, even those of us in the “respectful of process” fringe of fandom. And then, just over two years after A Seat at the Table, came an interview, new photos, and a promise. That promise was fulfilled during the dying days of a needlessly busy Black History Month — a revival of BlackPlanet (most famously referenced in pop culture on Kanye West’s “Get ‘Em High”), new images, video snippets, and even a phone number with a Houston area code on Instagram. And then more still: a title, a cover image, an alleged track listing, and a time for the drop: When I Get Home, midnight on the very last day of Black History Month. Here to save us, in some small way. Pleasure snatched from the jaws of despair.
This is a not a review. The sound and exact mouthfeel of When I Get Home is still to be ruminated on. The songs are brief, sometimes tailing off at the point when you want them to take flight — the longest song comes in under four minutes. Everything is still liable to change, but standouts as of right now are: “Dreams” (“I grew up / A little girl with dreams”), which is appropriately...dreamy. “Almeda,” which hits halfway through the record with Solange singing over skittery beats about brown liquor, brown skin, brown sugar, black molasses, as well as black faith that “still can’t be washed away, not even in that floodwater.” On “My Skin My Logo,” the singer starts off by slowing it down and taking her voice into a deeper, more playful register (“Gucci fly / Gucci got that eye”). Her tone serves as a perfect partner for guest star Gucci Mane, before evolving into one that is ecstatically breathy. On the record’s hardest track, “Sound of Rain,” Solange is joined on production by Pharrell and John Key, and the result is a thumping, driving track that has you mean mugging along to her encouraging “ay”s.
Whatever the breathless and considered reviews will tell us, we know When I Get Home is alive with the culture. All of her interests, from visual art to internet culture to the news cycle, has gone into the making and promotion of this record. The woman who has been a purveyor of Texan-flavored “black yeehaw agenda” (along with her sister) before fellow Texan Bri Malandro so succinctly named it, is here. When I Get Home boasts guest stars of an incredible caliber, featured on songs that are named for parts of her hometown — “S McGregor,” “Binz,” “Almeda” — and artfully weaving in samples of black American cultural icons, stars, and oddities. Performing sisters (and Houston girls) Phylicia Rashād and Debbie Allen, as well as Princess and Diamond from Crime Mob, appear on interludes, as does the former public access TV personality Alexyss K. Tylor. On “Binz” Solange breezily and bouncily sings that she “just wanna wake up on CP time.” There’s a confidence that those who need to pick up what she’s offering will do so just fine, and everyone else might have to read explainer articles. But that won’t be Solange’s job.
On the album’s second interlude, “Can I Hold the Mic,” Solange tells us: “I can’t be a singular expression of myself — there’s too many parts, too many spaces, too many manifestations.” The rejection of singular self-expression yielded so much richness in the interim years between her last two records. And now, on When I Get Home, with its multiple interludes, which work as brief looks into what’s fascinating Solange in the moment, the multiple chords of her concerns are present and correct. She is simply continuing her work as a conduit for multiple identities and experiences. As the eighth track states: “Do nothing without intention.”
On first — and second, and third — listen, When I Get Home is not a perfect record. It is, however, a continuation of the ideas on A Seat at the Table: finding and making space to think about what our ongoing moment means. Even on the surface level of names, When I Get Home sounds more comfortable than A Seat at the Table: The hometown references cement the idea of the personal being political. On “Almeda” she rhymes “black molasses” with “black bury the masses” and the heavy-handed lyric feels exactly right for our heightened senses and times.
It’s never more explicit than when you listen to the songs she opens and closes When I Get Home with. On “Things I Imagined” the vibe of the lyrics is possibility: “I saw things I imagined” reads like a reminder that things can (should?) be different. On closer “I’m a Witness,” Solange is a responsibility-bearing vessel: “And I won’t stop / till I get it right / Good night,” she sings. You can’t always get it right, but Solange is trying, and she won’t stop. ●