Sometimes, commercial success comes at the price of being called cheap. Your work gets eaten up by the masses and, suddenly, you’re a sellout. Still, the drag of “selling out” feels outdated in our double-tap twitching, Twitter itching, meme-it-and-weep world. We want our artists to stay true, but rack up too many views and they’ve become overexposed and overrated—not enough and they’re stale, leftovers.
With her latest album, A Seat At The Table, a labor of love on the wounds and resilience of black people, particularly black women, Solange finds her way in this paradoxical landscape—one that pulls on her from every direction, trying to define her, quiet her, put her into her place. Even as the album climbed up the Billboard 200 and reached number one, Solange proved she isn’t interested in the business of making hits or chasing that spectre of universal appeal. She knows far too well that she can’t possibly please everyone.
In “F.U.B.U.,” she speaks this truth the loudest. A nod to the 90s hip hop fashion brand, short for “For Us, By Us,”—which LL Cool J repped in a now infamous Gap commercial, a detail that flew under the radar of execs until a month and thirty-million dollars later—this track ticks off the casual racism of questioned credentials and appropriated culture that black people endure on the regular: in flight, in the car, even in one’s own neighborhood. Solange gets vocal, but her lush voice never rises above a resigned sigh. Anger doesn’t boil over here so much as it sags. She coos, “And they ask you, “What’s your name again?” / Cause they thinking “Yeah, you all the same.” It’s a fleshing out of an experience so understood by black people, of being made invisible by something so visible—i.e. the color of one’s skin.
From exclusion, however, Solange carves out space for herself and other black people by throwing rejection and denial back at all those who’ve rejected her. Packing the n-word in almost every verse and dictating, “Don’t feel bad if you can’t sing along / This us / This shit is from us / Some shit you can’t touch,” Solange mounts lyrical safeguards against the song’s theft by non-black people. This is not a earworm that anyone can squeal out to their little heart’s content because it “Gives me life!” or because “That’s my jam!” In our like economy, where prosperity hinges on view counts and virality, this is a bold, maybe even risky move because it puts a premium on who the track speaks to, who it touches more than numbers of shares it amasses. The song refracts back most jarringly, as Solange puts it, “uncomfortable truths” about ownership, consumption, and authority. For some, these conversations may be off putting; we often want music that lets us dance, forget about our worries, unwind, chill. So when we hear something that’s uneasy we can either smash the skip or tune in. This is not a one-size-fits-all crowd pleaser. The song, like the album, isn’t made to please, and it doesn’t belong to everyone. A Seat at the Table is made for black people, especially black women, the ones for whom the ugly realities of racism are inescapable, who have written far better words and reviews on the album than I ever could.
Solange has given so much with this project: a physical and digital book, a behind the scenes glimpse, stunning music videos, in-depth interviews and, this week, her time and presence here at Stanford. She comes to campus this Thursday and, as you can expect, there will not be an empty seat. Grab one while you can, but don’t forget: seating is limited.
Listen here. Image from here.