April 2019

Arts & Letters

A black woman in space: Solange’s ‘When I Get Home’

By Anwen Crawford

Solange. Photograph by Max Hirschberger

Songs distilled from the quiet expanses of high art and black culture

It wasn’t until her previous studio album, A Seat at the Table (2016), that Solange finally shone free of the sun-bright glare cast by her older sister, Beyoncé. That this occurred in the wake of Beyoncé’s own career-best album, Lemonade, released the same year, is testament to the singularity of Solange’s vision. Solange’s examination of African-American womanhood on A Seat at the Table was, by turns, celebratory, combative, grieved and sensuous, but the whole was delivered with purposeful understatement, as a streamlined blend of hip-hop beats and sweet soul singing. Like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (1971) from nearly half a century earlier, A Seat at the Table was beautiful protest music; beauty was a part of its claim.

Nor was Solange’s vision confined to the recording studio. Her video for the album’s single, “Cranes in the Sky”, combined precise, hieroglyphic choreography and futuristic costumes with cannily chosen locations: the brutalist Alley Theatre in Houston (Solange’s home town) and Robert Bruno’s Steel House, an extraordinary, UFO-like building perched on the rim of the Ransom Canyon, also in Texas. The cranes of the song’s title weren’t birds but machinery, and the struggle that the song outlined though never named – “I tried to work it away / But that just made me even sadder” – took place in spaces and amid distractions (labour, shopping, travel) of human invention.

In May 2017 she staged a one-off performance, An Ode To, at the Guggenheim in New York: musicians dressed predominantly in tan and red and yellow, with dancers and audience members alike arrayed in crisp white, patterning Frank Lloyd Wright’s exalted spiral. Later that year came another site-specific performance work, Scales, which materialised in the vast, hay-coloured field in Marfa, Texas, that is permanent home to Donald Judd’s 15 Untitled Works in Concrete (1980–84). Photographs showed Solange and her cast of dozens robed in shocking pink, moving in long lines between Judd’s hollow containers. And last June came her run of four shows at the Sydney Opera House, in the Concert Hall: a white stage flanked by white pyramids, with a large white sphere hanging above it, the whole lit periodically by washes of blue, red or purple, and the performers dressed in white and folding over each other, one after the other, like the action of falling dominoes, inside a building defined by Jørn Utzon’s huge white exterior sails.

All signs indicated that Solange would, in time, create something like her new, fourth album, When I Get Home: a recording built from simple repetitions, the cumulative effect of which is sculptural. It moulds space and – because it is music – shapes time. “I saw things I imagined,” Solange sings on “Things I Imagined”, the album’s opening track. She sings it over and over, but with slight shifts in emphasis and tone: now tentative, now glad, and now as if the phonemes, let alone the meaning of the words, were contingent, subject to pressure and to change. Each iteration of the vocal phrase creates a new angle, a new plane for the sound to exist upon. A synthesiser burbles under: the ground beneath the object of the song.

The 33-minute film that accompanies When I Get Home also opens with this song (at the time of writing, the film is available only through the Apple Music streaming platform), and it opens, crucially, inside the Rothko Chapel, in Houston, where 14 black paintings by Mark Rothko dominate the walls. Dancers, including Solange, move through the chapel, and, as the music plays, this imagery is intercut with footage of black cowboys riding on Texan backroads. Similar visual juxtapositions occur elsewhere: a choreographic sequence and then a party; a huge, circular piece of outdoor sculpture – it seems the design is Solange’s own – contrasted with a rodeo. Solange’s argument is that these things are equal: Southern black culture and high art; black people and black paintings. Why can’t the former, like the latter, simply be?

Solange knows the weight of racial history that comes with this why. This doesn’t mean that her question is posed in vain. She undertakes her minimalist arrangements of black bodies and voices in the full knowledge that her incursions into the art world and its institutions cannot, at present, escape being political statements. Her sister, Beyoncé, too, has grappled with this, though somewhat differently; last year’s “Apeshit”, from The Carters’ album Everything Is Love, came with an attention-­seizing video that was shot inside the Louvre. Beyoncé, the classicist, placed herself in front of canonical Western paintings (Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon) in order to highlight black people’s invisibility within the canon and, by extension, to suggest herself as a new entry in it. Solange, the modernist, is in pursuit of a black aesthetic that is, finally, aesthetic: an art for art’s sake, which exists without having to function as an adjunct statement to something else or labour as a metaphor. She wishes to be irreducible – to politics or anything else. “I can’t be a singular expression of myself,” she says on “Can I Hold the Mic”, one of several short interludes that pepper When I Get Home. “There’s too many parts, too many spaces, too many manifestations, too many lines, too many curves.”

The indirect and laconic qualities of When I Get Home may frustrate listeners who seek, post A Seat at the Table, an explicit statement of identity. But in refusing to be this it may prove the more far-reaching work. Like Frank Ocean did with Blonde (2016), Solange is sidestepping the expectations that have accrued in the wake of a celebrated album, returning instead with something quieter, and stealthier. Blonde, after about 45 listens, turned out to be a masterpiece. The same may be said, in time, about When I Get Home.

This album is far-reaching in another sense, too. Its lack of adornment, the sense that its brief songs (none reaches four minutes) have manifested out of a vast expanse and then disappeared again, grants it a cosmic scope. This is despite the fact that several of the songs, and the accompanying film’s locations, make reference to Houston. “Home” is a place, and an atmosphere; both, on this record, are at ease. “You love me,” Solange sings on “Beltway”, her melting voice surrounded by the kind of starry sounds that put one in mind of Brian Eno and Harold Budd’s Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror (1980). As with minimalist art, ambient music has rarely been characterised by the diversity of its participants. But Solange’s use of these ambient sounds, in combination with her expertise in majority-black forms like R’n’B and hip-hop (particularly the slowed-down, Houston variety of hip-hop known as chopped and screwed), suggests new possibilities. The “you” addressed in “Beltway” is, like the song itself, unbounded: a person, a community, the universe.

Back in 2006, two years before she opened her second album, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, with a slow-burning prayer called “God Given Name” – “Let my starlight shine on its own /No, I’m no sister / I’m just my God-given name” – Solange appeared in the video for Beyoncé’s “Get Me Bodied”, a song Solange also co-wrote. Solange, Beyoncé, and Beyoncé’s former Destiny’s Child bandmates, Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland, danced in short, glittering black-and-silver dresses that evoked both ’20s flappers and ’60s it girls, but also robots. The song’s interlocked, machine-tooled beats and unearthly sub-bass frequencies helped strengthen the suggestion of the women’s superhuman capabilities. “Can you get me bodied?” Beyoncé sang – an odd request, as if sexual desire required her reconfiguration as something, and someone, merely mortal.

“From the intricate web of mythology which surrounds the black woman, a fundamental image emerges,” wrote Michele Wallace in 1978, in her landmark feminist analysis Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. “It is of a woman of inordinate strength, with an ability for tolerating an unusual amount of misery and heavy, distasteful work.” But the superwoman figure that Wallace identified as a stereotype of black femininity has also been used by black women throughout the history of pop music – in the form of the robot or the alien, in particular – in order to suggest new figures of liberation, unburdened by the cruelties of racism. Think of Grace Jones, or Labelle, or Janet Jackson, or indeed Beyoncé.

Solange, too. About eight minutes into the film of When I Get Home, there comes an obvious visual riff upon the famous sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), when reflections of light stream over the helmeted white face of an astronaut. In Solange’s rendering, he has been replaced by a black woman. She plays engineer as well as explorer: now she attends to a blinking control panel, in the centre of which appears her own face. The song that plays over this scene is called “Stay Flo”, and its lyrics describe a form of labour – “Girls getting down every day / Working out of town on the floor” – while the arrangement suggests reverie. A music-box melody, fresh as a stream, runs over and over. Solange’s voice, layered upon itself, relaxes into floating, wordless patterns. The woman in the film now appears on an aircraft runway, dressed in silver spike heels and a silver bikini, dragging the control panel behind her.

None of this – the music’s fluency, the film’s sci-fi scenery, the specific pop history that both together invoke (there are hints in Solange’s soprano vocals, especially in “Stay Flo”, of the late Aaliyah and her sensational android R’n’B) – is accidental. The moment lays bare a lineage of black women’s artistry, and the effort it has taken these women to appear to be superhuman, but it also – and this is its challenge – refutes the same, as if to say that such effort has never been worth the pain. The desire expressed by When I Get Home – such an elemental desire, and yet, in the face of everything, such a radical one – is a wish to simply exist. Solange wishes to be, like Utzon’s sails, or Judd’s boxes, a material in space. To be a black woman in space.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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