Music

Solange’s Ambitious ‘When I Get Home’ Never Figures Out Exactly What It Wants To Be

Solange

When I Get Home is stuffed with intriguing ideas. The formulas are sound, operating in the same vein as Solange’s breakout album A Seat At The Table, which luxuriated in the “Black Girl Magic” trend in pop music which dominated the majority of 2016-17, a layered and intricate work encompassing self-construction and defiant, euphoric rebellion. When I Get Home sounds like it wanted to expand on and till some of the fertile soil its predecessor unearthed, but took a break for lunch and never came back. Nothing here will “make your trunk rattle,” as promised late last year.

It reminds me of The Broad museum in Los Angeles. The Broad is full of exhibits that others find fascinating that I cannot figure out for the life of me — things like neon signs and a ridiculous giant table. They sit there, among the paintings and sculptures and photographs, like they belong. They’re supposed to be art, I guess, and their plaques denote them as such, as do their placements on the exhibit floor behind stanchions. But they’re just these mundane items we encounter in our daily lives.

And maybe I’m being too literal-minded about their statuses as works of art. After all, those plaque break down all the things that make them works of art, all the supposed conventions they subvert and the way they make us question what art even is. Taking them in that context, you can almost see them as a not-so-subtle troll of the art critic community for its collective pretentiousness. But, you know what? Leaving all that aside, at the end of the day, a table is a table, no matter how big it is.

Up until she beat up her sister Beyonce’s husband in an elevator and the footage leaked online,Solange Knowles was almost entirely overlooked by the critical mainstream, boxed into the unfair write off as “Beyonce’s less-talented sister.” After she released this long-awaited fourth studio album, When I Get Home, just days ago, however, and I took in some of the starry-eyed reactions online, I couldn’t help but think about that table. I felt like I was being trolled, along with the rest of the world.

If When I Get Home isn’t a slow-cooked slice of vengeance for her earlier misperception among the critical set — and the general audience of consumers who overlooked her supremely underrated sophomore album, Sol-Angel And The Hadley St. Dreams — and instead an earnest and ambitious attempt at creating the sort of thoughtful, self-aware project it’s purported to be, it definitely needed to stay in the oven a little longer. In any event, it needs to figure out which of these two things it wants to be.

Take, for instance, the seemingly half-baked intro, “Things I Imagined.” Solange’s songwriting is strained, simply repeating the refrain over and over as an electric piano vamps and synthesizers swirl and eventually, the whole thing breaks down without doing anything. My ear goes from intrigued, to engaged, to disinterested all in the space of two minutes. It’s an effect she returns to multiple times over the course of the album, on “Dreams” and “Beltway” and “Jerrod.” Starting the album this way is foreboding. The fact that the song is immediately followed by a 16-second interlude — a looped clip from a poem by Pulitzer Prize-nominated Vivian Ayers read by her daughters Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad — doesn’t help.

On A Seat At The Table, Solange used vocal samples and snippets of interviews and speeches to great effect. Here, it feels like she’s using them because it worked before, to earn her rapturous praise and intellectual accolades. The same thing happens with the rest of the interludes, which are numerous and jarring and like the plaques at the Broad, seem to suggest that the commodities they’re attached to are deep works of art. Solange seems to have put more effort into the visuals surrounding the album than the music itself, including the 30-minute short film which accompanied it on Apple Music.

Songs that would have been bangers had they been completed include The-Dream-co-penned “Binz,” where she raps brightly to a simple space-funk two track beat that needs a few more tracks. “My Skin My Logo” with Gucci Mane uses a jazzy, Tyler The Creator-crafted beat and seems like a commentary on conspicuous consumption and self-worth in the Black community that pulls up just short of actually interrogating the subject. “Almeda,” an ode to the chopped-and-screwed technique that originated in Solange’s hometown of Houston surprises with its unexpected guest star Playboi Carti, but loses the thread quickly, allowing him to become the most interesting thing on the track.

That isn’t to say these songs are bad. They just aren’t done, and no amount of insistence that a statement is being made can change that. In a recent interview, Solange asserted that she spent “18 hours editing one drum sound.” If that’s the case, then the focus was in the wrong place, when songs like “Jerrod” loop endlessly without ever coming to a point or conveying a message or even just trying to evoke a feeling.

The whole endeavor brings to mind another project from 2016: Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo, another unfinished, hurried album whose progenitor did his best to convince us that its slapdash composition was the result of a grand artistic vision rather than an Emperor’s New Clothes-esque hustle. Just like that album, When I Get Home has just enough real bangers to justify distilling the thing down to maybe a five-song EP, like “Stay Flo” and “Sound Of Rain,” which are two of the most impactful and complete-sounding tracks of the set.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m willing to allow that there’s something I’m missing here. There are obvious references to Black womanhood and Houston culture that I’m just not going to catch, because my understanding of them is intellectual rather than physical, emotional, or spiritual. It’s not really for me as a man who doesn’t hail from Space City. But I can’t shake the feeling that even without those filters equipped, it should be easy enough to spot the artistry. Instead, “it’s not for you” feels a lot like “this fabric is invisible to anyone who is hopelessly stupid and unfit for his position.” It’s an out for a shameless grift, the sale of a suit of vapor to a populace too vain to risk their reputation to call it what it is.

The shame is that Solange does have the magical gift of art in her. She already shared it, but everyone missed it and it wasn’t the one they thought it was. Sol-Angel was an incredible work that truly unlocked the heritage, history, legacy, and inner life of a Black woman from the South, at once classic and futuristic, soulful and spacey, revealing and personal and intriguing. But at the time, she was just Beyonce’s little sister. She wasn’t a “real” artist. Now, she’s flogging the perception of “real art” to the masses who overlooked her while doing half the work. Her newfound success doing so might be her best revenge, but only if she really meant to finesse the game. If she didn’t, maybe she needs to get back to the magic she had before. If this is the kind of artist she really wants to be, that’s fine — but she’s proven she’s capable of so much more.

When I Get Home is out now via Columbia Records. Get it here.

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