Back in September, Solange Knowles invited to the world to take A Seat at the Table, because we needed to talk.
Remember the moment: Our culture was hurtling towards election day as if trapped on a sickening carnival ride. The world had just met the concept of "fake news" that would go on to create layers of mistrust between the right and left in this country. Scores of musicians were brandishing microphones like spears, looking for the most clever way to stick a certain candidate in order to grab a headline. And through all of the noise, Solange whispered: "I am overwhelmed with gratitude and excitement to share this work I’ve written and created, with you." For a minute, she seemed to stop time.
Filled with sparse, intimate R&B that feels as casual as a jam session at times and as meticulously crafted as a concerto at others, A Seat at the Table was a light. Its songs read like a journal entry but expanded outwards with repeated listens to ring with universal empathy, like a Buddhist sutra. It was perhaps the highest realization of healing music our culture has experienced in close to a decade.
Somehow, the Grammys missed Solange's invitation.
Despite landing her first No. 1 album and topping some of the most well-respected music publications' end-of-year lists, Grammy voters could not find it in their hearts to acknowledge the album among the year's most necessary. It managed to come up with one nomination for "Cranes in the Sky" for best R&B song — a pittance, really, because without the rest of the album, "Cranes" is stripped of context. This snub is a true disappointment — not an unsurprising one, considering the Grammy's love of pyrotechnics and pageantry — but still a tragic one that has the potential to affect the future of R&B for years to come.
If Beyoncé's Lemonade was a cannon blast at the walls of patriarchy and prejudice, A Seat at the Table is a meditation on how to establish the mental space to rise and repeat that act every single day.
The transcendent, airy beauty of the album's singles, like "Cranes in the Sky," are lent their rich color by the way the album paints the intertwining histories of racism and black pride — growing pains the songs seek to relieve. Its soft, pastel-hued poetry details the need for self-care on tracks like the Q-Tip-assisted "Borderline" and "Don't Touch My Hair." By curating a sense of balance and purpose, the tracks seem to suggest, one can find hope in the most impossibly unforgiving circumstances.
"Don't clip my wings before I learn to fly," BJ the Chicago Kid and The-Dream beg on "F.U.B.U." in one of the album's most resonant passages. "I didn't come back down to Earth to die." The album offers instruction on how to the delicate work of shedding the wounds of history and face reality, without letting it suppress one's imagination. It feels therapeutic, for both the artist and its listener.
The snubbing of this translucent, intimate gem of an album reveals a key blind spot in the Grammys view of the musical landscape. The Academy can't quite wrap its head around what R&B has become. The fact that they have two categories under which Solange's masterpiece could fit — urban contemporary and R&B proper — yet still couldn't find enough support to get the album a nomination remains the most puzzling aspect of the entire award night.
Granted, the nominees in the former category are all great albums, but few reached as far into modern R&B's unknowns. The "risks" Rihanna took on Anti are only risky considering Rihanna's history of consistently choosing the path of least resistance to the top of the Billboard charts. They're styles other indie-tier artists, like Santigold, Kelela and Erykah Badu, have been working for years. The same could be said in different ways for several of the records up for best R&B album. None in either category ring with the same idiosyncratic urgency of A Seat at the Table, and none offered anywhere near the same immersive solace.
The Grammys lack of recognition sends a clear message: Solange's sparse, organic and beloved musical experiments are not R&B's future, which feels untrue. But for all those who found true peace in A Seat at the Table last year, the possibility that the Grammys word will become bond is too heartbreaking to consider right now.