review: Solange’s ‘When I Get Home’ is a daring, satisfying sequel to a classic
Solange has been building and building her singularly great career for years now, yet Peak Solange still feels so far away, only because the next thing she does is sure to top whatever she did before it. Since her 2008 sophomore album Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, everything she's done has been a new breakthrough. Sol-Angel was an extraordinary example of psychedelic, art pop-leaning R&B years before it became a widespread trend. Once it did become a trend, Solange become one of the leaders of it with 2012's True EP. When it seemed like the "indie-R&B" bubble was about to burst, Solange took her sound in an awe-inspiring new direction on 2016's A Seat at the Table. It was more soulful and more powerful than anything Solange had done before. It boldly and proudly celebrated black culture and black music, and it thought outside of the box in more exhilarating ways than most of the "underground" music coming out around the same time. It was by far Solange's most successful album (it charted at No. 1) as well as her most acclaimed. It cracked several year-end lists (including ours) and topped a bunch too. It was clear quickly after its release that it could turn into a classic, and by now it undoubtedly has. When Solange finally played shows in support of it, the songs came even more to life. Her last run of shows saw Solange putting on the most spectacular, artistic performances of her career. Between the concerts and the album, Solange started to occupy a very rare space in the music world. She was elusive in some ways and accessible in others, very popular yet not what you'd usually call "mainstream," innovative yet not inaccessible. While some instant-classic albums end up quickly fading in our fast-paced, internet-driven world, A Seat At The Table just sounded better and better the longer it settled in. It made the anticipation for a followup go through the roof. Solange had already been a beloved artist before A Seat At The Table, but afterwards, for the first time in her career, there were sky-high expectations for what she would do next.
And yet, when she dropped When I Get Home into the world at midnight on Friday, March 1 -- just a few hours after officially announcing the album -- Solange met and arguably surpassed those expectations like it was nothing. At the risk of sounding too hyperbolic, When I Get Home is the perfect followup to a classic album like A Seat At The Table. It's similar enough to scratch the same itch that A Seat At The Table scratches, but it's a clear step forward. Solange's music has always been experimental and psychedelic, but When I Get Home is her most experimental and psychedelic yet. Because she's such a pop master, the album goes down easy, but it breaks much more ground and explores much riskier territory than most current pop music. Just like A Seat At The Table was in 2016, When I Get Home is the future.
When I Get Home is a lot of things at once. It references sounds from the past but it repurposes them in ways that make them sound forward-thinking. While A Seat At The Table referenced classic '70s soul, When I Get Home pulls from atmospheric jazz and the chopped n screwed music of Solange's birthplace of Houston, and it favors the brevity and collage-like sequencing that's been creeping its way into hip hop and pop music recently. Solange struck up a creative relationship with Earl Sweatshirt (who opened her 2017 shows and produced the outro to "Dreams" on When I Get Home), and the two of them recently bonded over rising Philly rapper Tierra Whack's highly unique 2018 album Whack World, a 15-track album of one-minute tracks that all blurs together and constantly interrupts itself. Earl channelled Whack World's approach on his great 2018 album Some Rap Songs, which he made with help from another group of collage makers, genre-defying New York collective Standing on the Corner. SOTC and group leader Giovanni Cortez reappear on When I Get Home as co-writers and co-producers of several songs, and their patchwork, jazz-hop sound clearly left a mark on When I Get Home, as did avant-garde composer Chassol, who co-produced a nice portion of this album and opened those same Solange shows that Earl Sweatshirt did. But as important as Solange's collaborators were to this album, I can't stress enough that the one presence you feel over and over and over is Solange herself.
Solange fills the album with references to the Houston hip hop that she was raised on, and Houston vets like Devin the Dude and Scarface join her for brief appearances. When she needed backup vocals, she brought in other boundary-pushing R&B singers like Cassie, Abra, Sampha, and The Internet's Steve Lacy. When someone else had to be brought in to play keys, she asked Tyler the Creator. Her longtime collaborator Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) lent co-production to a song. Late 2000s psychedelic pop leader Panda Bear contributed to four songs. But if you didn't read the album credits (which could double as a killer music festival lineup), you might not realize any of these people are on it. Unlike A Seat At The Table, When I Get Home doesn't have proper guest appearances so much as it just feels like a group effort by a cast of insanely talented musicians, with Solange leading the way. When someone does have a proper guest appearance, it's usually brief and not show-stealing anyway. Collaboration is a great thing, and the guests here do a phenomenal job -- the harmonies are all stunning, the keyboards are as shimmering as any of the modern jazz and jazz-rap albums that have been creeping into the zeitgeist lately. But Solange is a true auteur. It always sounds like she's is in the driver's seat (and she's credited as the main writer on almost every song), and her efforts have resulted in nothing short of a masterpiece.
Just on a pure sound level, When I Get Home is a triumph. On top of the jazz and hip hop influences and the collage-like sequence, When I Get Home dabbles heavily in electronic music and also touches on reggae ("Binz"), funk ("Way to the Show"), and more. And like A Seat At The Table, it's a triumph in terms of message and purpose too. Sometimes -- as Solange did on A Seat At The Table -- she celebrates black culture, like on major album highlight "Almeda" where Solange sing-raps "Black skin, black braids, black waves, black days, black baes, black days / These are black-owned things / Black faith can't still be washed away" to breathtaking effect. Other times, like on the spoken word interludes "Can I Hold the Mic" and "We Deal with the Freak'n," she celebrates female empowerment. But When I Get Home isn't an album that's woke for woke's sake. Often times, her words are as psychedelic as the music, brief and with dizzying use of repetition and painting a picture rather than telling a story. (Solange changes the inflection in her voice so many times on album opener "Things I Imagined" that you might not even realize at first that she's singing the same line 16 times in a row.) Other times, Solange just sounds like she's having fun, like with the "swangin' on them" section of "Sound of Rain," When I Get Home's warped version of a rap banger.
When I Get Home's refusal to be pigeonholed and its refusal to do the expected is a big part of why it feels like such an instant success. It's a totally new kind of album, especially from a chart-topping major label artist, but also just in general. As good as A Seat At The Table is, it's an old kind of album. It had some truly modern moments, but it was Solange's version of a traditional soul album, and the retro-ish live performances she supported it with followed suit. But When I Get Home already feels ahead of its time. Especially when put together with those aforementioned Earl Sweatshirt and Tierra Whack albums, it feels like it's part of a trend that we haven't fully seen develop yet. It is not just innovative music, but an innovation of the album as an art form. It makes sense that Solange released it all at once with no advance single, because it's the kind of thing you really need to hear start to finish to fully experience (though "Almeda" and "Binz" would make for pretty great singles). It's obviously not the first album that is best played start to finish, and it's obviously not the first daring, anti-singles album by a pop singer, but it feels done in a way that we haven't really seen before -- especially not on this level. It won't be surprising if one day When I Get Home is cited as a groundbreaking moment in pop culture. It wouldn't be the first time that happened to a Solange album.
You can stream When I Get Home via Spotify below and watch the accompanying film on Apple Music.