“Solange is coming!” The rally call echoed through the digital stratosphere on Tuesday after Knowles announced via Instagram that she’d taken over… Blackplanet.com. No, don’t check the date on this story. You read that correctly.
While artists and teams ponder the next innovative way to elicit an awed “Their MIND!” response from fans with content drops, Solange went back to #BlackTwitter’s predecessor. BlackPlanet was the online destination for black people before MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram existed. There were forums and groups for cities, organizations and affiliations, dating and job hunting. Pages were customizable (like on MySpace), teaching a whole generation of black bloggers how to code on the low. It was an immersive community; there are kids walking around right now who owe their existence to BlackPlanet. And Solange brought it back.
Fans spent Tuesday and Wednesday searching for old Hotmail and AOL email addresses and passwords, and looking around the site for the first time in years. The platform never shut down, and still feels very retro, as it’s in the process of being updated, but Solange’s new profile was sleek and modern — and offered a sampling of teaser photos, clips and messages, all fervently shared and reposted. The idea of going back to a safe online space was as enticing as the promise of new Solange content.
Creating frenzy for a new release via an old school black-owned site imagined as a world just for black people is so Solo. The wide appeal, critical acclaim and overall sonic excellence of Knowles’ last album, 2016’s Grammy-winning A Seat at the Table, elevated her to the all-hands-on-deck alert levels for a new album formerly reserved for her big sister. She has become a master of artistic innovation through simplicity, while keeping it super black.
She also keeps it super authentic to her roots. In the following days, Solange continued to release clips on her IG, all tagged with her hometown of Houston, TX as the location, with references that her newer, younger, and more mainstream-leaning fans may not have picked up on. On Wednesday, she shouted out Devin the Dude, a Houston rapper signed to the storied Rap-a-Lot records. On Thursday morning, she posted a phone number instantly recognizable to fans who were old enough to cop their own, uncensored music in the mid-’00s.
The number 281-330-8004 belonged to Houston rapper Mike Jones (Who? Mike Jones!) — who called out the active, working number in his 2005 single “Back Then,” and made it a central part of his brand. First reviving an almost forgotten platform, then bringing back the phone hotline, a throwback to a time before artists could talk to fans directly through social media. Was Solange taking us back to a bygone era of album promotion? “She gon’ go full early 2000’s on us and include some ringback tones when the album drops,” tweeted writer Dillon Stevenson (@TheDiLLon1).
The throwback-in-a-new-way rollout — and three days is a long-lead rollout in the surprise-album era — is also the formula for Knowles’ fourth studio album, When I Get Home, which she released at midnight on Friday (Mar. 1). Sony Music’s press release describes the album as “an exploration of origin. It asks the question how much of ourselves do we bring with us versus leave behind in our evolution.”
Those two sentences could also serve to summarize Solange’s career: Since breaking away from the formulaic R&B/pop crossover mold of her 2002 debut album, Solo Star, Knowles has taken time to try on sonic and cultural pieces of classic soul, R&B, funk and jazz; pairing them with futuristic themes, lyrics and visuals. A Seat at the Table was a statement piece; she’d found the perfect balance of retro-futurism. Modern and relevant with a traditional R&B grounding, the album was of-the-moment, classic and timeless all at once. This is executive producer Raphael Saadiq’s area of expertise: Over his 30-year career, he’s quietly been one of the most prolific producers in black music, specializing in a blend of old soul influences and new sound, and his work — with group Tony! Toni! Toné!, his own solo material, his writing and production for Joss Stone, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo and others and even his efforts as music supervisor for HBO’s Insecure — all reflect the vintage yet current feel invoked by A Seat at the Table.
When I Get Home stretches that blend of past and future further. The run time is a short 39 minutes, and feels like flipping through radio stations or skipping around to different tracks while riding in the car — through Houston, obviously. Solange placed city markers throughout the project: Some songs are chopped and screwed, a sound originated in Houston by producer DJ Screw and made popular by Houston artists Slim Thug, Paul Wall and Mike Jones. Tracks are slowed down and doubled up, creating the sensation of being drowsy or drunk while listening. Multi-talented performing arts sisters and hometown darlings of an older generation, Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen, are sampled on the “S Megregor” interlude. The transition from “Beltway” into “Exit Scott” samples lesbian poet, feminist and activist Pat Parker — who, like the Knowles and Allen sisters, was from Houston’s Third Ward. The previously referenced Devin the Dude appears on “Dreams,” and the King of Houston rap, Scarface, is featured on the final interlude, “Not Screwed.”
In Solo fashion, Knowles took all the Houston flavor — the chopped-and-screwed hip-hop, feminist poetry, voices from local legends, even a Crime Mob sample — and mixed it with contributions from experimental pianist and composer Chassol, indie experimentalist Panda Bear, and left-of-center hip-hop artists and producers Earl Sweatshirt, Tyler the Creator and Pharrell. Her vocals add touches of neo-soul and ‘90s R&B to that mix. Past meets present, meets future. Rap meets soul, meets jazz, meets fusion. Blackness — in multiple forms — meets world. This is completely Solange’s vision, and her presence is stronger than any of her album collaborators: While Saadiq returned for this project as a session player, Solange wrote and produced on every song, and is the main architect and executive producer. But that was a natural progression — Saadiq gave her credit for having clear vision and strategy for A Seat at the Table, once saying he was just part of her band.
Solange also feels more unencumbered here. A Seat at the Table wasn’t exactly stacked with pop hits, but it was a more traditionally formatted album than When I Get Home. This set feels like a jam session, or one continuous longplay. Only five of the 19 tracks are longer than three minutes. There isn’t even a “Cranes in the Sky”-style radio single. This project is about connection: The connection of music eras, the connection of cultural influences, and Solange’s connection to her people.
Black music and culture is shifting, as it does every decade or so. Artists and creators are working to restore a depth and richness to music and content that’s felt diminished over the last several years. Emerging stars such as H.E.R, Daniel Caesar, SZA and Jorja Smith have sounds that reach back to earlier music eras, pull elements of substance and nostalgia, and become a new thing in their art, moving the culture forward. Solange is one of the best at manifesting something completely new out of things that are familiar. She’s created her lane by not actually picking one lane, instead proclaiming that she’s bringing home with her wherever she goes, and we’re happy to follow her to the next destination.