With her fourth album When I Get Home, Solange Knowles masterfully and effortlessly combines multiple styles while collaborating with some true industry heavyweights. Clocking in at 39 minutes with a whopping 19 tracks, the whole album feels like a series of interludes, reminiscent of those live YouTube mixes of lo-fi hip hop, as an animation of a girl studying, writing, pausing to look out the window, continues on loop. Indeed, you could turn it on in the background while studying and not be jarred out of your concentration; it’s a smooth ride through Knowles’ memoryscape of Houston, a cool breeze coming in through the window.
A Seat At The Table (2016) shun a bright spotlight on Knowles’ exquisitely lovely melodies and the power of her words. Here, her words form the backdrop as she instead focuses on sonic qualities. Leaning heavily on a songwriting and performance style championed by the great Stevie Wonder, listeners will be able to hear a kind of intuitive, free-flowing approach in the production, which drifts from new age trap to soul to jazz to RnB to vaporwave, all without breaking a sweat.
The album opens with “Things I Imagined”, in which she sings the same phrase in different ways again and again; she prepares us to stop focusing on her words and focus instead on the vibe. Vintage electric keyboards and synths form the entirety of the instrumental arrangement, at first following Knowles’ vocal melody closely and then later displaying a shimmering quality.
“S McGregor (Interlude)” consists of a fuzzy piano sample underneath the voices of sister actresses Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad. It brings us into “Down With the Clique”, a stunningly hypnotic number with a lurching 7/4 beat and dreamy synths. Despite being one of the longest tracks on the record at an ideal radio single length of 3:42, the end still feels rather abrupt, as it ushers in the next track, “Way to the Show”. Knowles sings breathily over a crunchy 80s synth bass line and crisp electronic drums on this track.
“Can I Hold The Mic (Interlude)” samples a clip of Diamond and Princess of Crime Mob, a synth subtly following the pattern of speech, before opening “Stay Flo”, an RnB-tinged song, in which a catchy loop of bell synthesizer repeats over a compelling beat. The production on this one is slick and dark, with thick layers of vocals, reminiscent of Sampha, though he himself doesn’t appear until a couple tracks later.
“Dreams” is similar to the opening track, a kind of meditation where the words, by being repeated, lose meaning, inviting you to get lost as well; “Sometimes I dream I’m in the four door,” someone near-whispers as as the track begins to fade, “coming down on the slow-mo”. The next interlude, “Nothing Without Intention” leads into “Almeda”, which is thematically something that could belong in A Seat At The Table, though the message of black and brown love is much different here, abstracted, with watery synths dripping in reverb, everything sounding slightly underwater.
“Time (is)” featuring Sampha is an ambient reflection about moving past fear, but again, more like a musing diary entry than a public, polished statement. “My Skin My Logo” enters with a D’Angelo-like quality, featuring Gucci Mane and production from Tyler the Creator, with Knowles growling out her verses about what exactly Gucci likes, a smile in her voice.
“We Deal With The Freak’n (Interlude)” sets up for “Jerrod”, a soft and sultry number in which she croons “call me, baby, say that you want it.” It melds seamlessly into “Binz”, featuring production by The-Dream and Panda Bear along with a sunny, tropical vocal line.
Next, “Beltway” offers a sleepy, moonlit coast along the Texas State Highway Beltway 8 before taking “Exit Scott (Interlude)” off the highway, zooming into “Sound of Rain” – a mystical new age starfield of a song, with an echoing raindrop synth and icy beat. Knowles’ vocals pick up to match the quicker tempo; the song has more momentum than anything else on the album, and yet it doesn’t build anywhere. Like the other songs on the album, it cuts off abruptly into the final interlude “Not Screwed!” and track, “I’m a Witness”, in which she sings, as if to a God-like figure, “you can work through me, you can say what you need in my mind, I’ll be your vessel,” ending the album on another personal, abstract, journal entry-like musing.
Whereas A Seat At The Table was something you listened to when you really wanted to listen to a message and a story, When I Get Home is something you listen to in the in-between times: driving, studying, working, or before falling asleep, as you stare at your ceiling. The album, as Knowles herself has stated, is about sonics above words – fitting for a world in which people increasingly listen to music in their every waking moment, who stream playlists for every activity, and want, above all, a consistent mood on loop.
Solange is a truly multidisciplinary artist: in addition to her vocal talent and co-producing this album, she directs music videos and orchestrates performance art. This album is, true to her synesthesic skills, like something made by a lighting director. The colour gels are all deep purples and blues with an occasional flash of retro pink. If she was a perfume artist, the air would smell like petrichor and night-blooming jasmine when you turn it on. It’s not a water feature on a lawn, it’s a mist that comes over the fields at night, as magical as it is hard to pin down.