REVIEW: Solange – When I Get Home

For Solange, the third time proved to be the charm. The younger Knowles sister had tried to make an impact on the music world with two major label albums released virtually lifetimes apart – the first in 2002 as a 16-year-old, the second in 2008 aged 22 – without a great deal of success.

Seemingly destined to be forever tainted by association with her music executive father and superstar sibling, even the Dev Hynes-assisted True EP (released another four years later) earned a degree of scepticism. In such vast time periods, so much changes on a personal and musical landscape, and each of her projects sounded completely different from the last – giving the impression not of artistic exploration but of someone trying on a series of outfits waiting for one to suit. But then, just short of her 30th birthday, she completed third LP A Seat At The Table, and everything fell into place.

ASATT was the product of thirty years of lived experiences wrapped into an immersive, fully-formed neo soul record. It was as if, after trying to prove herself for a lifetime, she stopped and turned her gaze inward – exploring the themes of femininity, race, and identity that truly mattered to her through gorgeous songs and moving interludes. It was an exceptional piece of work.

Given the specific set of circumstances it took to get here, attempting to replicate ASATT’s success would have been a thankless and unrewarding task for the artist and the listener. Thankfully Solange is well aware of the need for art to push new boundaries, and When I Get Home progresses towards a more impressionistic, fluid mode of expression.

Seemingly an extension of her forays into the art world in the time since her last record, it explores many of the same themes as ASATT, centering on her connections with the place she calls home – the Black American South and specifically Houston, Texas. This is evident as much in the southern funk and jazz influences that shroud the record’s sound as some of the more notable collaborators here – Gucci Mane and Playboi Carti bringing Atlanta rap to the forefront, Scarface of Geto Boys grounding Houston’s energy in the background.

Solange talked in the recording process of taking herself “away as subject”, and a practice of blurring boundaries can be heard across the record. Defined songs seem unimportant as mood takes priority; the music drifting in and out, collage-like. This is meant to be an Album in the fullest sense, and cherry-picking individual tracks is largely not an option here. Other artists have recently shown that great merit can be found in this approach when done well, and notably Solo has enlisted them as collaborators here: Earl Sweatshirt’s (who contributes production) Some Rap Songs from last year and 2016’s Freetown Sound from Hynes’ Blood Orange were masterful conveyances of mood and feeling, creating immersive experiences that transcended song boundaries and embraced what a full length body of work can do at its best.

There are high points on WIGH where Solange does just this. Central highlight “Almeda” incorporates Carti, The-Dream, and Metro Boomin as Solange shouts out “black-owned things”  on a bed of gloriously fused-together trap, soul, and jazz. It’s the cornerstone of the album and it feels like the execution of her intention – seemingly disparate elements sounding natural, celebratory, and unmistakably Southern. On “Binz”, Solo and Dream’s interplay is electric as they celebrate black success over a reggae-tinted beat. “Way To The Show” and “Stay Flo” are jazzy, soulful ruminations on Houston culture which lovingly pay tribute to identifiable characteristics of her home.

When this ‘collage’ approach isn’t executed successfully however, things get lost in the mix. And by taking herself out as the subject on WIGH, Solange leaves a void which can register as a collection of enjoyable instrumentals with ambiguous messaging, but little more than that. “Jerrod”, a three-minute swell of harmonies and instrumental, feels like it has little purpose other than being a pleasant, but unremarkable set-up for “Binz”. Interludes, the like of which powered the narrative of ASATT, are subtly applied – but the problem here is that they’re often so subtle they don’t seem to contribute anything other than offering vaguely relevant background texture.

Though the free-form approach is admirable, the record would be notably enhanced with more actual songs. Hynes’ aforementioned Freetown Sound had veritable tunes to anchor its surroundings to, but WIGH seems to deliberately eschew these (“Binz” for instance, is tantalisingly cut off after less than two minutes, leaving aspects of its sound feeling unexplored). The frequency at which this occurs suggests that this is intentional, but the lack of highlights prevent the record from being a true success. I believe WIGH is the soundtrack to Houston that Solange wanted to make, and after her long journey of musical discovery, that is a joy in itself. Frustratingly though, despite its many merits, it feels as though a better record has been backgrounded.

Words by Tom Burrows.

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