Tina Lawson opened Headliners on Houston’s Montrose Boulevard in 1990. She did hair during the day, and sewed costumes at night. The hairdresser’s daughter spent a percentage of her childhood in the salon, where she is sure to have encountered incidental poetry. Certainly from her mother, who says on “Interlude: Tina Taught Me,” “I think part of it is accepting that it’s so much beauty in being black.” Otherwise, the daughter found verse in objects. For instance, the name of the best-selling hair relaxer of the late ’90s, Dark and Lovely, derives from the fifth Song of Solomon. “Dark am I, yet lovely,” is the short of the sensual, melancholic verse, a petition from a speaker who gives their skin up for view, and for touch. “Don’t Touch My Hair,” Solange Knowles’s own song about the physical splendor of darkness and its attendant sign, hair, contends with the ideas that outside contact verifies beauty, and that hair merely contains fibers: “Don't touch my hair / When it's the feelings I wear,” she sings on her third studio album, A Seat at the Table.
Knowles knows that this kind of hair and the kind of people who were born with it shouldn’t be disturbed. “What you say to me?” she and Sampha sing, energetically, confrontationally. She has learned, first in the salon and then in life, that the maintenance of a particular style requires precious labor from both the stylist and the client, and that in some American neighborhoods, cosmetology is not so distant a study from astrology. Hair ordains spirit; the state it is in decides whether regular human affairs, like going to the store, like being treated like an equal citizen, will be possible that day.
There are photos to help women decide. In beauty shops — surely in Headliners, which was the most popular in town — images of black women, chins tilted to showcase whatever style, stock the pages of posters, magazines, and recycled albums. The purpose of these busts is commercial, to sell a certain look to a certain customer, a design that will make her fond of her likeness when she appraises herself in mirrors. Knowles encountered these photos too, the emotional connections they provoke, and used them as sources for art. In one photo, she has braids linked with beads and cowrie shells, like Stevie Wonder. The cover for A Seat the Table presents her posed, glancing as if she were a model in an avant-garde beautician’s lookbook. Lodged in the dip of 22-inch body are pastel duck clips, which could indicate that the style is not done, but paused in an intermediate stage of preparation. Solange, however, looks ready.
Her lucid precociousness avails itself in more than one medium. On “Cranes in the Sky,” an ascending song about all the devices a restless mind turns to for relief, Knowles softly demurs: "I slept it away, I sexed it away / I read it away." Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric was one of the books she read, by her own word; the poet’s precise pinning-down of the fugitive drift of daily racism influenced the singer, if not soothed her. Knowles made a book, too. A week before A Seat dropped, she appeared, asking her social media followers to enter their information on a form on her website, Saint Heron, so that she could send it to them. Eighty-six received a copy of the book, eighty-six for the year she was born. For another celebrity, a similar tactic would be shrewdly antiquated marketing. For Solange, the spectacle of invitation and the shadow of exclusion it cast implied the album. The listening party the invitees attended was held at Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, which stands on the land that James Weeks, a black freedman, bought himself.
The book held writing: lyrics arranged as concrete poetry, phrases that had gnawed at her. (The words “bite the hand” repeat over two pages, increasing like a charm.) The clay-colored volume, also called A Seat at the Table, features photography from a collaborator, Carlota Guerrero. Men and women, including the singer, wear sculpted hairstyles, everyday cottons, and pink international silks. They look sensitive, able to be loved and to be hurt, on American seascapes and landscapes that could exist in the future. The photos are animated in videos for “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “Cranes in the Sky,” directed by Knowles and her husband, Alan Ferguson, and shot by black cinematic legend Arthur Jafa. Knowles envelops them with spacious choreography. Lounging, standing, or glaring from the edges of rare buildings, residents of fabulist desert geographies, foreign but familiar, the models resemble the faces Carrie Mae Weems once captured. The photographer's master work, The Kitchen Table Series, premiered the same year as Headliners. Weems photographed herself, black women, and black families over time, performing evanescent domestic tasks — thinking, crying, doing hair — at a kitchen table. Weems’s series remade the camera, which tended to pry on the comings and goings of black people in public, into a mirror, one that reflected private, small episodes with a loving judgment. Hers was a civilized documentary art, a warm kind of journalism. What The Kitchen Table Series did for art, A Seat at the Table will do for music.
A Seat at the Table stages artful, grounded pictures of the ephemeral. Phenomena like institutional racism and other indignities are entrenched in the fabric of the country. It is in the air here. We know its strategies well. The knowledge doesn’t preclude that at any given time, the air can coalesce into a “metal cloud,” can freshly distress you. A Seat uncovers these moments, gives loose shape to both them and the consequences they wreak. So much of this album documents, with colossal beauty, the way environments conspire to ruin or lift the moods of black people. For Mathew Knowles on “Interlude: Dad Was Mad,” the surroundings are the fallout from school integration. For Lil Wayne, clarified and vulnerable on the twinkling “Mad,” it’s general despair. Whatever the cause, Knowles makes room for the effects, the weariness, and the defiance. Knowles is unmoved by didacticism, by referential storytelling. She prefers traditions like anguish, annoyance, aggression, pride, haughtiness, and jubilance, and in that order. She maps the escalation of feeling.
Knowles herself describes A Seat at the Table as a “project on identity, empowerment, independence, grief, and healing.” These words are cumbersome and bloodless, so Knowles, ever the musical stylist, uses cultivated monosyllables to express the fullness of her meaning. She is attuned to how the massiveness of the world is just an accumulation of small things. The brief, beguiling opener, “Rise,” confesses just as much, asking, “Fall in your ways, so you can crumble.” Another stunner, the pristinely written “Weary,” follows: Almost whispering, Knowles floats an Afropessimist sentiment, vaguely gesturing to the theory that death is an emancipation: “I’m gonna look for my body, yeah / I’ll be back real soon.”
As if a roving lens, A Seat at the Table trains on the material details of ordinary life — tinted cars, maxed-out credit cards, a fresh hairstyle — and magnifies them with extraordinary tenderness. The tint on a car window isn’t just an embellishment: It attracts police. The credit card bill strewn on the table is more than money, more than a calendar matter; it memorializes an episode of personal caprice. Everyday symbols have also been appropriated for joy. Knowles keenly sees the power of black-owned music and fashion companies, the example they set for posterity. She consults elders, female and male, but she is acutely drawn to the precise, exacting hand of the black woman artist. She is a follower of business and of poetry. “I hope my son will bang this song so loud / That he almost makes his walls fall down,” she sings on “F.U.B.U.”
A Seat at the Table has a few origin points. A friend of mine described it as “prestige R&B.” In interviews, Knowles has said she began actively working on it — and for her, the work means executive production, writing, singing on every single sung track — four years ago, after True was released. But it’s also transparently clear that the tessellated instrumentals on A Seat started with 2008’s Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, when she first meaningfully collaborated with Raphael Saadiq, prodigious R&B producer and master bassist. Long her mentor, Saadiq sent Knowles drums that inspired her to write “Cranes in the Sky” eight years ago, in a hotel room. The girl-group subtleties are souvenirs of a ’90s golden era when teenagers like Brandy and Destiny’s Child eclipsed any male-dominated sense of what R&B was, or could be. Knowles’s appreciation for the precision of piano could be traced back to when she was a child, listening to Marvin Gaye and Motown. Gaye was an influence for applying social awareness to sophisticated arrangements as well, clearest on her questioning “Where Do We Go.” And the delicacy, the generous methods Knowles uses to picture the susceptibility of black people to love and to exasperation — that began a millennium ago. “When it’s going on a thousand years / And you’re pulling up to your crib / And they ask you where you live again / But you’re running out of damns to give, oh,” she sings on the anthemic “F.U.B.U.”
Compositionally, A Seat at the Table feels architectural. Knowles placed the 21 songs just so. Nine interludes support the transitions from track to track, retaining the ebbs and flows of emotional vicissitude. Their melodies are riffs of future movements, like brief sonatinas. They cannot be skipped; they work as integral variations, resolutions, and complications of the songs that follow. Master P, whose economic autonomy inspired Solange and her father and a whole generation of New Orleanians, emerges as the album’s resident griot, providing wisdom, suggesting caution. “If this white man offer me 1 million dollars, I gotta be worth 40 or 50 or 10 or something,” he says on “Interlude: For Us By Us,” speaking of a business deal he once refused, backgrounded by grazing horns. From Master P’s final word on the matter — “You don’t understand me, so this is not for you” — an anthem grows. “All my niggas in the whole wide world” bumps on, both ecstatic and slow. This is a hawkish alternative, or better national chant, precisely because only black people can sing it. “Don’t be mad if you can’t sing along / Just be glad you got the whole wide world,” she sings at the end, gloriously ridiculing the etiquette failure that is racism.
Four instruments form the vocabulary of A Seat: horn, bass, vocals, and piano. On A Seat, piano dominates melody, albeit with versatility. Sometimes trills accent Saadiq’s clever bass-playing — the brilliance of “Weary,” which he coproduced along with Solange, is in the interplay of the bass and the shimmery tremolo. Mostly, the melodies are made up of chord progressions. The jumps are unusual and small, slight changes like the introduction of a sharp or the naturalizing of a flat. Vocals correspond to chords; they are relaxed sororities of sound. Enlisting women like Tweet, Kelly Rowland, and Kelela, she accumulates chorals like crystals. “I got a lot to be mad about,” Tweet echoes on “Mad,” a song about the right to indignation. Nia Andrews and Knowles are a sisterly parallel on the a cappella “Interlude: I Got So Much Magic, You Can Have It.” The male backup singers — including The-Dream, Moses Sumney, and Dev Hynes, the producer of True — provide subtle contrast. Knowles’s voice is matured and resounding and lively, even at its most quiet, at its most ambitious. “Cranes in the Sky” ends with her hitting a Minnie Riperton whistle tone.
A Seat ends in a state different from that in which it started. Its beginnings were in despair, if refined. It leaves you with celebration, like a Louisiana second line. Knowles moved to New Iberia, where most of the album was written, years ago, a kind of maternal return, hoping the geography would affect her. It is clear that the textures and colors there, the culture that situates grief right next to jubilee, now occupy her mind. She’s smoothed so much of her sound since debuting in 2002. “Junie,” an airy funk recapitulation of the Ohio Players sound dedicated to the group’s director, Walter “Junie” Morrison, is the closest A Seat comes to sampling. Still, her touch is original and inspired. The track is sly, because the message is actually a lecture against cultural laziness. This doesn’t scan, however, when André 3000, another Southern hero, says to “jump on it.” You dance, you celebrate, the worries hidden in plain sight.
Most days since A Seat was released, Knowles divulges an explanatory story or two. The album speaks for itself, it speaks for all black people. And yet she feels compelled to tweet out answers to questions about touring, to show us an early draft of a dance. She thanks a collaborator or an admirer. She invites us to have a seat with her mother. She seems giddy and generous, eager to contextualize for the black people who she knows have been provoked. She is so happy that we like it. As she should be — A Seat excels as a conversation, classical R&B, a manifesto, a prayer. There is no doubt A Seat is the album of the year. Perhaps we should even compare its impeccable construction, erudite writing, and conceptual elegance to albums in the past decade. This would be appropriate, considering how many years Knowles took to create it, how long it took us to get here.