Announced on the last day of Black History Month, Solange Knowles’ fourth studio album, When I Get Home, surprise released at midnight as a digital drop and experimental short film. A method originally pioneered by her sister, mega-superstar Beyoncé, many other artists have since adopted the technique of the ‘surprise drop,’ eschewing the popular single. But Solange elevates it to high art with Home, a thought-provoking concept album that’s as much video installation and interactive performance piece as music.
It was accompanied by a reintroduction of early 2000’s Black social network ‘Black Planet,’ where you can sign up for an account, create a profile, and even watch a 24-hour live stream showcasing interviews and places Solange grew up in and finds meaningful in Houston, Texas. Similar to how we are viewing places important to Solange’s childhood in the present-day when we watch the live stream, the album, set and recorded in Houston, listens like a futuristic archive of her memories of growing up. If that sounds abstract, it’s because it is — when Solange won her first Grammy, for “Cranes In The Sky” off 2016’s critically acclaimed A Seat At The Table, she expressed the importance of Black women creating avant-garde art. She demonstrates that purpose here.
There is virtually no album structure on Home, as two-minute ‘songs’ bleed into minute-and-a-half ‘interludes,’ interspersed with clips of recorded audio from Solange and her friends as well as cribbed from online videos and poetry. Verses, chords and tones all repeat and overlap, along with occasional static that resembles the sound of an old television changing stations. Sprinkled liberally through the album in the form of breaks and hooks is the inclusion of audio from her life and time recording the album in Houston, making it a piece where you hear the finished work and the process of making it all at once. The gun-clicks of gangsta rap are utilized alongside gospel church organs, jazz pianos, and Minneapolis funk guitars, an example of how the genres present on Home are ever shifting. Jazz, however, is by far the most prominent stylistic choice. This could easily be considered an experimental jazz album with undertones of rap, r&b, funk, gospel, country and screw (a Houston-specific sub-genre of rap where songs are slowed down).
Many of the tracks push what can be done in terms of song structure, and question how far the concept of a ‘song’ can be deconstructed. Can it be pushed until the cumulative pieces, linked by interludes and audio that feed directly into one-another, are just one long melody? Home boasts an impressive 19-song tracklist, but clocks in at a succinct 39 minutes. Beginnings and endings are experimented with so that you think you’re listening to one song, only to find it has shifted into another. Lyrics are often repeated, and during a live-streamed presentation on Black Planet, Solange discussed the importance of such repetition, and how something you say to yourself grows stronger in power each time. When she trills on the opener, “I grew up a little girl with dreams… dreams… dreams… dreams… I saw things I imagined,” she convinces us she really did. When she repeatedly chants, “Black skin, Black braids, Black waves, Black days… These are Black-owned things… Black faith still can’t be washed away… Not even in that Florida water,” on “Almeda” — named after a neighborhood in Houston — it is reminiscent of a prayer. The lyrics across the board on Home are sparse, which only seems to magnify their gravity when repeated. Their subject matter covers various aspects of Solange’s Black American experience in Houston, from the mundane to the divine.
“Almeda” itself is a trap-meets-screw-meets-jazz banger produced by Panda Bear, of the alternative pop group Animal Collective; another standout is the crooning ‘Jerrod,’ which has some truly beautiful melodies and vocal arrangements reminiscent of Brandy on her excellent “Full Moon.” (Remember that time Solange told white male indie writers they didn’t know shit about Brandy’s deep cuts?) When “Jerrod” segues into “Binz,” the two songs momentarily share the same baseline. And on the percussion-heavy “Binz,” super-producer The-Dream, from Atlanta, lends vocals that float effortlessly over the beat while Solange scat sings in the background.
Fellow ATL-ien Gucci Mane has what can only be described as a rap/spoken word duet with her on “My Skin My Logo,” which is a title that works on two levels: first in that the visibly Black skin of a Black person is, indeed, their logo, brand, and descriptor. It will impact every facet of how they are seen by the world. And second in that the influential trap rapper Gucci Mane, who adopted the designer moniker in the early 2000s as a rap name, is also tattooed in Gucci’s distinct double Gs, making his skin literally his logo.
On A Seat At The Table, music maestro Raphael Saadiq executive produced along with Solange, and included features from Master P, Lil Wayne, BJ the Chicago Kid, alternative R&B darling Kelela, and more. Here, Solange executive produces solo, bringing back frequent collaborators like Sampha and Dev Hynes, along with multiple Southern artists such as Pharrell, Metro Boomin and Playboi Carti. She also showcases more obscure hometown heroes, like Houston rapper Devin the Dude, in order to craft a futuristic interpretation of what can only be described as Southern soundscapes. Their accents are heavy and their slang is clear. And there are echoes of Beyoncé, too, in some of Solange’s more country twangs and renditions of lyrics; after all, these songs are her reflections of her memories, and they did grow up together in the same house in Houston.
Solange and her cohorts are reminiscent of jazz composer Sun Ra and ‘The Arkestra,’ his ensemble performance group that was constantly changing. Sun Ra, who is described as creating avant garde jazz, free jazz, and, quite literally, space music, was an experimental artist that adopted the persona of a Black alien landed on Earth. He frequently preached that ‘Space Is The Place,’ which was also the name of an experimental science fiction film and album he released in 1972. Ra’s elaborate backstory and mythology around his alien mission made him one of the pioneers of Afrofuturism in music, and his use of synthesizers and electronic keyboards in jazz was a clear precursor to the sounds we hear on Home, along with his use of surreal images in visuals and performances.
As far as the visuals for Home go, what Solange has crafted is part of a new wave of Black surrealism that also includes Donald Glover’s “Atlanta,” and Terence Nance’s “Random Acts of Flyness.” Solange tapped Nance to co-direct her film of the same name, When I Get Home. It is distinctly a Western, but it’s a Space Western, where Black cowboys in metal faceguards ride horses surrounded by a ring of identical Deloreans, Solange stands surrounded by skyscrapers while wearing leather chaps and a cowboy hat, and an omnipresent figure covered head to toe in silver metallic Western fringe presides over her signature interpretive dance moves. Silver is as prescient a theme in Home as chaps and boots, along with Southern Black band culture, wherein performers dressed in identical outfits dance in unison.
Middle-aged Black men in button ups, jeans, and boots ride up and down Houston streets and then ranches on horseback, posing against the dark backdrop of a sky at dusk. The forgotten history of Black American cowboys and the Black rodeo culture of Texas are clear inspirations. There is no true plot or protagonist, but other running themes also include time travel, groups of Black women being staged and posed (a nod to the Southern pageant circuit) in office buildings, and the use of distinct markers of Black American Southern culture, such as ‘crispy’ permed hair in elaborate styles, long fingernails, and diamond teeth. And Houston, always Houston. Houston swap meets, roads, and neighborhoods from her childhood are used as backdrops for Solange’s modern sci-fi rodeo, which travels further and further through time.
By the end of the film, Solange’s imagining of her memories of the landscape of Houston has shifted radically to the point where it’s almost unrecognizable, including waterfalls and natural geometric structures where groups of Black women stand clustered together as if in prayer. This is her version of Houston as it could be, in a hundred years, or maybe a thousand. These are her memories of a future past. There is a scene where a femme in six-inch heels and a silver metallic bathing suit pulls a spaceship down an empty desert highway in Texas. Has she crash-landed? She looks like an intergalactic exotic dancer, and it’s fantastic. Black women in black suits with black hair dance in a way that causes them to resemble the many-armed Indian deity Durga, the supreme goddess and mother whose name means ‘heavenly, divine, anything of excellence.’ Echoes from an interlude remind us that women are a cosmically divine form. Gurus caution us to do nothing without intention. We’re fully immersed in Solange’s mind, and it’s a place made up of the multitudes that influence an artist. In yet another interlude, Solange proclaims that she is ‘too many things’ and cannot be contained.
There is endless audiovisual footage of Solange herself in the film. Much of it is of her interacting with the space cast she has assembled, dancing on concrete slabs while they form circles around her or standing on the corner in the shadow of a man on a horse. But there is also footage of her in rooms alone, during the day but also presumably late at night, recording herself on grainy webcams in a way that is reminiscent of the freedom utilized by children singing and dancing unabashedly along to their favorite songs. Her hair changes, as do her clothes: in one scene her hair it is in its fluffy natural state, in another it is bone straight and stretching down to the floor. She’s naked (save for her cowboy boots), then wears a full-length sequined bodysuit, and then a purple and pink windbreaker set- the kind we all had as children in the 90s.
Home is ultimately a joyous record that seeks to explore the warm confusion you feel as an adult when you can only halfway recall a good childhood memory, like of yourself in that windbreaker. When Solange uses memories of her Black American experience in Houston to imagine a future Houston, we are reminded that memory is a tricky thing, and it’s funny, the things we remember as adults versus the things we imagined as children. There’s something that’s all very real about this work. There is something honest and unflinching at the center of it. These are Solange’s memories, but if you fit somewhere in her demographic, there will be glimmers of the familiar in both the audio and visual formats of Home.
Conversely, a LOT of this you will NOT get if you’re not of the same demo as Solange. A lot of this you will not get if you’re not a Black American. If you’re not from the South. If you’re not from Houston. If you haven’t spent time in the church, or at the rodeo, or in a late-90s beauty parlor (reminder that Destiny’s Child futuristic “Bills, Bills, Bills” video was filmed in then-hairstylist Tina Knowles’ chromed-out hair salon in Houston). When Solange made a ‘FUBU’ reference on ASATT, many loved the song without recognizing that F.U.B.U. was, in fact, a Black American owned and operated brand of the 80s and 90s that utilized the slogan ‘For Us, By Us.’ In Home, Solange has crafted an entire album around that kind of specificity. She is very deliberately making art that’s not for everybody, and this is her interpolation of Black American Houston culture. Because make no mistake, this album is for and about Black Americans, the South, and Houston specifically.
In another one of her live-streamed interviews at Black Planet, Solange stated, “I made A Seat At The Table for everybody. I made Home for me.” ASATT, borne out of a deep racial depression, was her method of healing and coping, becoming a method of healing and coping for many. It was her hitting her stride, and now she’s really moving around in her artistic practice. ‘Home’ is a twin album in a way, coming from a place of joy rather than bleakness, where Black women are gods, Black cowboys are astronauts, and Houston is a futuristic cityscape filled with waterfalls where people go to worship. It’s a dazzling billet-doux to Houston, to Black Americans, to Southern culture, and most of all, to her memories. In listening to this album, we saw things she imagined.
Seren Sensei (@seren_sensei) is an activist, writer, cultural critic and new media maker. Focusing on finding the bonds between race, politics, and pop culture, she creates race-based video content and also released her first book, entitled So, About That… A Year of Contemporary Essays on Race and Pop Culture, in 2015. She was a 2016-2017 fellow for at land’s edge, an art and activism fellowship program in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in the art space human resources la as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum.