One of 2016's most outstanding -- and surprising -- releases is Solange's A Seat at the Table. Previously best known as Beyoncé's avant-garde younger sister, Solange had recorded two albums and an EP; all received mixed to positive reviews, but failed to equal the impact of her older sibling's work. A Seat at the Table changes this dynamic, as Solange establishes her unique voice not only vocally, but lyrically. Like Beyoncé's recent album Lemonade, Solange's work addresses African-American identity and specific issues concerning women's self esteem. Through her Minnie Ripperton-esque voice, Solange sounds both fragile and strong, laying herself bare to listeners while singing over 70s soul arrangements. The album's lead single, the delicate "Cranes in the Sky," perfectly encapsulates the complex themes dominating A Seat the Table.
Clearly Solange was surrounded by music from a young age; she began singing at five years old, and even started composing when she turned nine. When she reached 13, Solange joined her big sister's group Destiny's Child on tour, first as a backup dancer and even substituting for an ailing Kelly Rowland during one show. Three years later, her father (and Destiny's Child manager) Matthew Knowles signed Solange to his own recording company; after paying her dues singing backup, penning songs for Rowland and guesting on other artists' albums, she finally released her debut Solo Star in 2003. The album underperformed critically and commercially, so Solange returned to songwriting, penning the hits "Upgrade U" and "Get Me Bodied" for Beyoncé. By 2008 she tried recording again, releasing Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams and experiencing success on the dance charts with singles such as "I Decided." While recording her third effort True, Solange experienced a self-described "breakdown," but her neo soul-drenched EP was finally released on an independent label in 2013.
Two years later, Solange was in a different place artistically. Thematically inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, she wrote and recorded in Louisiana, then took the demos to Raphael Saadiq (Tony! Toni! Toné!) and singer Troy Johnson to further flesh out the songs. In an Instagram post, Solange discusses how she and Saadiq first collaborated on "Cranes in the Sky" eight years ago. Initially Saadiq gave her a CD with instrumentals, including a few tracks consisting of strings, bass, and drums. The same night she received the disc, Solange penned lyrics to "Cranes in the Sky," but did not revisit the composition until the Seat at the Table sessions. "I called Raphael that night and asked if he would help me to elevate the production on a few of the other songs of the album to see their fullest potential. I am so happy 8 years later Cranes is finally out in the world," Solange writes. Wisely, Saadiq took a minimalist approach to arranging and producing, letting the distinctive drums, hypnotic bass line, and subtle strings cradle Solange's ethereal voice, effectively communicating both strength and vulnerability.
As the strings and drums gradually build, Solange confesses her struggles to find contentment. She tries drinking and dancing, changing her looks, and buying clothes, "but that just made me even sadder," she cries. Next she immerses herself in work; what that fails to distract her, she indulges in sleep and sex. "I read it away, away, away," she sings, her voice multiplying on each word. "Well it's like cranes in the sky / Sometimes I don't wanna feel those metal clouds," Solange croons, the image suggesting confinement of spirit. Travel, splitting from her lover to find solace in isolation, writing--nothing alleviates her doubts and depression. She purposely leaves those "metal clouds" up to the individual's interpretation, as numerous physical and emotional limitations can inhibit progress. Her lyrics resonate, while her almost whispered delivery conveys her ambivalence. Will she ever find answers? The ending is abrupt and ambiguous.
Like Erykah Badu, Solange has crafted artistic R&B, combining poetry with a retro soul vibe. Yet the production values are firmly rooted in today's music. In a refreshing departure, however, Solange tends to focus on organic sounds rather than overly relying on mechanical, computer-processed tracks. The beautiful "Cranes in the Sky" typifies the mood of A Seat at the Table, an album that remains the most pleasant surprise of 2016. Solange has finally surpassed the "Beyoncé's sister" label to become an artist in her own right.