Solange Says Less, Feels More on “When I Get Home”

The accompanying short film to Solange’s most recent album, “When I Get Home,” opens with the artist draped in jewels, standing motionless in front of an imposing painting by Mark Rothko. The spectacle undoubtedly calls to mind Beyonce and Jay Z’s recent staging of their “Apesh*t” video in the Louvre, where their presence alongside some of western art’s most coveted objects spoke to the Carter’s celebrity while proclaiming the right of black bodies to coexist and occupy those spaces. In her short film, Solange is similarly interested in representation, with numerous shots of black cowboys, dancers, and performers in various location in Houston, Texas, including the Rothko chapel sequence which opens the film. In many ways, the film builds off of the videos to 2016’s “A Seat at the Table,” which featured Solange and her ensemble in a number of architectural and natural landmarks across the southwest United States.

“Obviously with ‘A Seat at the Table’ I had so much to say,” the artist told curator and critic Antuan Sargent. “With this album I had so much to feel. Words would have been reductive to what I needed to feel and express. It’s in the sonics for me.”

In this context, “When I Get Home” makes sense. Listeners expecting an accessible album will be sorely disappointed here. Instead, Solange has delivered a dreamlike soundscape of angelic vocal refrains and ethereal instrumentals. “When I Get Home” delivers a vibe in spades, one which lulls the listener into a state where the album’s understated moments will either speak to the listener or leave them scratching their head.

On first listen, listeners might be confused by the album’s lyrical content. Solange’s declaration that she had less to say is certainly present in the album’s serial repetition. On numerous tracks such as “Time (is),” “Things I Imagined,” and “Way to the Show,” Solange appears content to fall back on a phrase or a hook and simply ride the instrumental. Oftentimes this makes the album feel like a collection of sonic motifs, which can work to the album’s benefit or its detriment depending on the listener’s perspective. Admittedly, a number of tracks have little staying power outside of the context of the record, as their sub-two-minute runtime prevents them from saying anything meaningful on their own. However, it is clear based on the album’s sequencing and the way that each track’s instrumental bleeds into the next that this is a project whose merit should not be judged merely as the sum of its parts. Even some of the album’s more gripping standalone tracks such as “Almeda” fade seamlessly into the next. At its best, “When I Get Home” coaxes listeners into a trance through the combined force of Solange’s repetitive, angelic humming and instrumentals which are understated without being bare.

The album truly clicks when listeners are engulfed in the experience. Before long, listeners may find themselves nodding their heads to Solange’s playful verse at the end of “Biz” or delighting in the bass licks which color “Way to the Show.” Other instrumental highlights on the record include “Sound of Rain” and “Stay Flo.” Several of these beats come courtesy of a number of high profile collaborators, with Devonte Hynes of Blood Orange, Earl Sweatshirt, Steve Lacy, Tyler the Creator, and Pharrell numbering among the album’s songwriters. The vocal features are equally eclectic, with Atlanta rap giants Gucci Mane and Playboi Carti lending verses alongside British singer and songwriter Sampha.

Ultimately, these vocal features are a mixed bag, something which can be said for a number of other moments in the tracklisting as well. While the Carti feature meshes quite well on “Almeda,” the song that Gucci appears on, “My Skin My Logo” takes its off-the-cuff approach a little too far. The song’s casual and improvised verses plod along to a relatively inconsequential instrumental that leaves little impact on listeners. While the record features some striking highlights among these low-key tunes, a number of tracks are simply boring. The opener and the closer are both frustratingly low-impact and similar. Some critics have pointed to this as a strong point, a sort of reinforcing of the dream-like elements of the record. I disagree. While the album draws its strength from some of its quieter moments, moments such as these are too quiet for their place in the tracklisting and marr the otherwise excellent sequencing of the record.

“When I Get Home” is a confident album from Solange who, after her breakout success in 2016, seems to feel confident stripping things back topically and at times vocally. At various moments, Solange’s delivery can feel merely pretty, with her vocalisations blending into an agreeable if forgettable instrumentals. These tracks, however, are not a majority in the tracklisting, and the album’s best moments should be celebrated for how much they deliver within such an ephemeral window. Those planning on giving this album a shot should listen to it from front to back. It really is a record where one needs to sit back and tune out to tune in. Listeners’ enjoyment will ultimately come down to whether they find the general atmosphere and aesthetic of the album compelling. It’s not often that I come across an album that I want to like without being sure if I do. “When I Get Home” holds a great deal of promise and a number of genuinely excellent moments, but I doubt it will be remembered as great.

Author’s note: For those interested in an album which explores short musical themes with a similar neo-soul and R&B twist, I wholeheartedly recommend Blood Orange’s 2018 release “Negro Swan.” It delivers a similar experience to “When I Get Home” with sharper tunes and a more cohesive aesthetic.

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