There are certain people who give off the distinct impression, upon first glance, of not being from anywhere. Of simply having arrived, fully formed on earth; from the ether, perhaps.
I always got that feeling about Solange. Not that she didn’t represent a specific place, so much as she always sort of felt beyond place. And space, and time, for that matter.
With her new record, When I Get Home, Solange absolutely obliterates this sentiment, tendering a love letter to her native Houston.
If you haven’t already rinsed this record into your psyche there’s really not much I can do for you except to say ‘do so immediately’. I’ll leave the proper reviews to the aural expressionists over at Pitchfork and NME, but I do have to say that the record is a triumph.
Solange has spoken at length of creating a ‘new jazz’, and it holds true here. The nods to Stevie Wonder and Alice Coltrane. The riffs and repetition. Harmonies and lyrical fragments re-emerging over the course of the record, as they would in a symphony.
In a time when most ‘pop’ records are comprised of a few singles, artfully orchestrated to be licensed to car commercials and NBC dramas, it feels almost revelatory to encounter a piece of art writ large, to be consumed in toto. A mood piece. A tone poem.
Having collaborated with the likes of Pharrell, Sampha, and Tyler, the record is staggeringly diverse, as is her ability as a songstress. One track, ‘My Skin My Logo’, sees her take her voice down to a slow rasp; trading Gucci-soaked couplets with his highness of ice cream cone face tattoos in full C&S Jill Scott-Heron mode, before abruptly switching into a series of soaring harmonies, reminding us that her vocal prowess is second to none.
The album was conceived alongside a full-length video-cum-film of nearly forty minutes, in the vein of Yeezy’s MBDTF. A muted, moving, meandering haze of choreographed bodies-as-installative performance art, pseudo dance videos in the Rothko Chapel, and big sky rodeo scenes; the two components, aural and visual, are symbiotic. The album takes on new meaning when ‘viewed’. Dense and contrapuntal on its own, it takes on deeper resonance with the visuals, engenders a sort of intuitive polyphony in the mind of the ‘listener’.
The launch of the album was composed as that aforementioned love letter to her hometown; with nine different venues across the city hosting screenings, so her local fans could participate in the event personally.
Each location was personally selected by Solange, and represents a part of her upbringing in Houston; a piece of her history and the culture that imbued it.
The Unity National Bank, for example, had it’s leather club chairs set up facing a large screen in the lobby. The first, and, to this day, only, black-owned financial institution in Texas, Solange literally puts her money where her mouth is by doing all her personal banking there.
The ‘Project Row Houses’, a series of renovated ‘shotgun’ houses in the Third Ward that are now used to house African-American artist residencies, and have earned their founder Rick Lowe a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant, were each set up with a dozen chairs and a screen.
Emancipation Park, the oldest park in Texas, and the only public park in Houston that allowed black citizens during the Jim Crow era was another setting. The security guard, slightly overwhelmed by the sudden appearance of a gaggle of international media, posed for pictures before telling us that the Black Panthers has a shootout with Houston police in that very park in 1972. ‘Other stuff has happened here too…good stuff’, he trailed off towards the end, charmingly downplaying the massive cultural outreach and facilities the park and its center provides.
We saw it at the S.H.A.P.E. (Self-Help for African People through Education) Community Cente, with the artist herself, her collaborators, and her mother. I’m usually loathed to cite memes, but I do have to admit that the best thing the internet did this week was a picture of Tina Knowles with the caption ‘How can one womb have this much power’.
But I digress. Solange spoke afterward, discussing her motivations and methods for the album and film. The talk in its entirety is up on her website, and well worth a watch, but I found it particularly fascinating to hear her talk of the history of black cowboying in Texas, and how it inspired her. ‘I don’t know anything about John Wayne, but Bill Pickett and Bose Ikard…that’s our history’. She spoke of the cowboy’s prayer, and how it inspired her in the creation of When I Get Home.
We only ask that you help us to compete in life as honest as the horses we ride and in a manner as clean and pure as the wind that blows across this great land of ours.
Help us, Lord, to live our lives in such a manner that when we make that last inevitable ride to the country up there, where the grass grows lush, green and stirrup high, and the water runs cool, clear and deep, that you, as our last Judge, will tell us that our entry fees are paid.