Solange's ‘When I Get Home’ Is A Reminder That Black Stories Don’t Have To Be Burdensome
Solange remembers Houston while journeying to her creative destiny.
Solange’s critically acclaimed A Seat At The Table concluded with “Closing: The Chosen Ones” and on it, Master P proclaimed, “We come here as slaves, but we going out as royalty.” It was an optimistic message to end a project reflecting on the burdens that African Americans carry because of white supremacy. On her follow-up, When I Get Home, Solange is in alignment with Master P’s focus on the glory. She shifts her storytelling to a black experience that isn’t troubled by the traumas caused by whiteness.
Picking up where the last album ended, Solange signals her mood change on When I Get Home’s opening track, “Things I Imagined.” On the final verse, she repeats in soothing harmonies that she’s “taking on the light.” In the 18 tracks ahead, she does so by illuminating and crowning the beauty of Houston, her hometown, in a way she hasn’t before in her art.
The singer spoke on reconnecting with Houston’s Third Ward and surrounding parts of the city and state to make this album during a screening event attended by VIBE’s Desire Thompson. “Certain things that might've been mundane to me visually started to really enrich me and enrich my spirit,” she said. Solange has lived in Idaho, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, New York, and currently New Orleans, yet there is nothing like the thrills her hometown offers her. “I think [that] just growing up in Texas is such a spirited place, any given time of day you can see and experience something that's so unique and so grounded in our culture here.”
Through music and film, Solange offers another narrative of black Southern culture that’s much more than the usual themes of slavery, lynchings and segregation. It’s a celebration of heritage that has existed, before these interruptions, and continues to thrive today. Actress Lynn Whitfield reminds audiences that black storytelling doesn’t have to exist solely be painful in an episode of Netflix’s Strong Black Lead podcast.
“There are dynamics of families and riches...and traditions of black family that have not a damn thing to do with white people, racism, slavery or anybody else,” Whitfield said. “Some of our problems are just our own problems. Some of our complexity is just ours. And I want to own that,” she continued.
Solange widens those possibilities with the experimental and collaborative When I Get Home. The singer offers 19 nostalgic dreamy jazz-focused meditations, propelled by psychedelic synths and chopped and screwed beats. It feels like the soundtrack to a joy ride at night with Solange in the driver’s seat guiding us around Houston. The accompanying movie invokes imagery of black cowboys, rodeos, 90s hairstyles, Nokia cell phones, Houston architecture and afro-futurist treatments such as 3D animations and surrealist fantasies. Solange also used BlackPlanet, the black-focused online community that predates the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram era, to tease the album before releasing on March 1.
Solange’s album arrived at the end of Black History Month and the beginning of Women’s History Month. Whether intentional or coincidental, it’s black women who narrate the project. The interludes sample media footage of black women poets, artists, actresses and spiritual gurus. And the interludes are where so much of the experimentation happens on the album. “S McGregor (interlude)” features the voices of Solange’s hometown heroes Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad over piano keys and a haunting chopped and screwed vocal. According to her mother, Tina Knowles, the song title is named after the street where Allen and Rashad’s father lived. On “Nothing Without Intention” Solange lays down another hazy chopped and screwed beat, and in the final seconds we hear the Goddess Lula Belle state “do nothing without intention,” which is borrowed from her YouTube video, "Florida Water For Cleansing and Clearing.” And the words just seem to stick with you.
By this point of the album, it’s clear Solange’s intentions for this project is to explore her creative range. The album’s experimentation is credited to her love for Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through A Secret Life of Plants. Solange was also influenced by Joni Mitchell, Missy Elliot, The Sun Ra Arkestra, and Aaliyah, as outlined in the New York Times last October. Solange won’t be contained and let it be known on “Can I Hold the Mic,” which starts off with an interview clip of Princess and Diamond of Crime Mob. Solo then blends in a spoken word.
“I can't be a singular expression of myself, there's too many parts, too many spaces, too many manifestations, too many lines, too many curves, too many troubles, too many journeys, too many mountains, too many rivers, so many…” Solange proclaims over zig-zagging chords.
Solange gives us those varying parts of herself throughout the album. Sometimes she’s free-spirited like on the all-star “Almeda” (a road in Houston), produced by Pharrell and featuring The-Dream, Metro Boomin, and Playboi Carti. “Brown skin, brown face/Brown leather, brown sugar,” Solange chants on the verses. Solange also makes another reference to Florida Water, a cologne used for cleansing rituals by Santeria and West African Vodun practitioners. The track invokes imagery of the height of gatherings, where black people can safely let down their guards and ease into bliss. The hardcore drum and bass and playful ad-libbing make this a celebratory anthem that’s speaker rattling hip-hop at its core. When I Get Home has hip-hop all over it, with keyboards from Tyler, the Creator on “Down With the Clique”; the Metro Boomin-produced “Stay Flo”; a Gucci Mane feature on “My Skin My Logo”; and fellow Houstonian, Scarface on “(Not Screwed) Interlude.”
There are moments when her sensual side breaks through, especially on the groovy “Way to the Show.” Her feathery vocals beckon a person she deeply desires, while she makes a reference to Houston’s eclectic car culture. “Call me, even on the way to the show/Way to the show, candy paint down to the floor.” Singer Cassie provides angelic background vocals. On the velvety “Jerrod” she continues panting for physical contact. “Come and say the word and you know you gon' hit it,” she sings, giving the green light.
When she takes us to an introspective space, her vocals are on full display as she exercises hearty rips and runs. For instance, there’s the woozy, “Dreams,” reminding listeners to remain steadfast in chasing them. (“Dreams, they come a long way, not today”). On the soul-stirring “Time (Is),” Solange reunites with Sampha to be in conversation with her fears. She pushes past them by leaping into action. “But the way to do it/Just (Yay)/Do us just/ Then you’ll know/ Go.”
The fear of releasing a body of work that’s true to her current creative moods could have been crippling for Solange, especially when following up on a heralded project like A Seat at The Table. When an artist returns with an album that’s experimental compared to its predecessor, its reception could be divided, or worse, written off completely. Recent examples of this being done successfully include Kendrick Lamar’s transition from the Compton-centered good kid, m.A.A.d city to the jazz and funk-laden To Pimp a Butterfly, or Rihanna going from her usual pop bangers on Unapologetic to the vibey Anti. But there are instances when artists don’t receive the same love for switching up, such as Anderson .Paak’s move from the soulful Malibu to a more hip-hop driven Oxnard, or A$AP Rocky’s transition from a more favorable AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP to less trendy sounds on Testing.
But Solange chooses to show up uninhibited anyway. Although she’s taken some risks sonically by calling on jazz fusion, she modernizes it by blending hip-hop soundscapes, especially by threading in the influences of DJ Screw, who defined the sounds of her former stomping grounds and mainstream hip-hop.
Solange returning to her roots for inspiration can easily be tied to “Sankofa,” a word from the Akan people of Ghana that means “go back and fetch.” “It expresses the importance of reaching back to knowledge gained in the past and bringing it into the present in order to make positive progress,” Sankofa.org, a social justice organization founded by Harry Belafonte, writes. Solange’s When I Get Home does just that. She achieves creative evolution and the progression of black storytelling through music. And while doing so, she proudly points back to her Houston origins by sprinkling in numerous layers, references and clues. If you know, you know. If you don’t, prepare to be transformed.