Review: For Solange, Houston is both subject and canvas on ‘When I Get Home’

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In the 2-1/2 years since Solange released “A Seat at the Table” — the gorgeous and deliberate R&B album that elevated Beyoncé’s younger sister to her own position of artistic importance — she’s spent much of her time working in rarefied spaces such as New York’s Guggenheim Museum, London’s Tate Modern and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

As its title suggests, Solange’s new record represents a kind of doubling-back on her journey: "When I Get Home" is more or less set in her native Houston, with songs named after the city’s streets and neighborhoods and appearances by local veterans including Scarface and Devin the Dude.

“Candy paint down to the floor,” she sings in “Way to the Show,” referring to the shiny, brightly colored look many Houstonians give their cars; elsewhere, she nods to the city’s so-called chopped and screwed sound, in which a DJ slows down a piece of music to draw out unexpected emotions.

Yet for all the warmth of its homecoming, this remarkable album isn’t about setting aside creative ambition to celebrate one’s humble roots. With its philosophical tone and painstaking attention to detail — not to mention the unconventional structure that pulls together 19 tracks in 39 minutes — “When I Get Home” argues that Houston, and places like it, are no less worthy of serious consideration than any citadel of high art.

Hours after the record premiered on streaming services, Solange released what she called an “interdisciplinary performance art film” that sets her new songs against striking images of African American cowboys and bull riders — a powerful reclamation of Southern iconography not unlike the plantation-house scenes in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.”

So what’s on the mind of this deep thinker? Her childhood, naturally — “I grew up a little girl with dreams,” she sings over creamy electric piano in “Dreams” — along with the comforts and temptations of sex and consumerism.

“I just wanna wake up to the suns and Saint Laurent,” she sings — raps, really — in the reggae-inflected “Binz,” “Hundred thousand dollars on the fronts and the blunts.”

As on “A Seat at the Table,” Solange is also pondering the indelibility of African American culture. In “Almeda” she runs through a long list of “black things” — “black skin, black braids, black waves” — before insisting, “Black faith still can’t be washed away.”

Yet “When I Get Home” feels more abstract than its predecessor; there’s nothing here as declamatory as the earlier project’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” or as nakedly confessional as “Cranes in the Sky."

 

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