Still Tippin': Solange At Home In Houston
At 2 a.m. Monday morning, Solange Knowles and a handful of friends were at a strip club in her native Houston, celebrating. The artist/auteur wore a leopard print cowboy hat, matching tube top and cut-out black pants, loose enough to twerk along with the dancers in their section. Rapping along to A$AP Ferg and Megan Thee Stallion, showered in red neon lights and hookah smoke haze with singles in hand, she was living.
The gathering was an impromptu after-party: On Friday, Solange surprise-released When I Get Home, an album made in Houston and steeped in its hyper-local culture. On Sunday evening, she doubled down on her artistic homecoming, making the city host to an "album experience." Public screenings of the record's companion art film graced nine locations across her hometown, showing fans the artist's hometown through her own eyes.
When I Get Home, like the city it pays homage to, is a mosaic: screw music, jazz, R&B, trap and funk live right next to one another and often intermingle. Her sluggish, half-drawled delivery on "Down with the Clique," "Way to the Show" and "My Skin My Logo" calls to the signature flows of Bun B, Mike Jones and Slim Thug, while chopped-up vocal samples on the album's five interludes follow the murky remix blueprint of H-Town's patron saint, the late DJ Screw. Influences and collaborations range from Southern OGs Gucci Mane and Scarface to young rule-breakers like Playboi Carti, Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt. Transitions are marked with a church choir and Solange's ethereal falsetto, taking the sonics from unbuttoned and guttural to holy before the trunk-rattling bass drops bring it all back down.
Meanwhile, the track titles — "Almeda," "Binz," "S McGregor," "Exit Scott" — act as dropped pins, animating what it feels like get off the Beltway 8 highway and cruise through the streets. The album is a love note to her city, bottled with Topo Chico, Florida Water Cologne and blunt smoke, a kiss on a Burns BBQ-stained satin napkin. A stack of crisp dollar bills for V Live Saturday and a freshly pressed dress for service at St. John's Sunday. A flicka da wrist and a hair flip of the sew-in.
The When I Get Home screenings — which were simultaneously streamed on the artist's Black Planet page — took place in the Third Ward, Houston's historical epicenter of black culture, at locations chosen for their significance to black art, business and emancipation. There was Vita Mutari, the hair salon previously owned by Solange's mother, Miss Tina Knowles-Lawson, where the artist and her older sister, Beyoncé, spent time as kids listening to the grown folks gossip and sometimes performing for tips. There was Texan Tire & Wheel, the premiere shop to get your "swangas" fixed up for the impromptu lowrider shows on Almeda Road. There was Unity National Bank, the only black-owned banking institution in Texas, and Emancipation Gym, the state's oldest park and the only public park open to black people during Jim Crow. Whether the locations were historic or contemporary, they each represented cultural touchstones that nurtured Solange into becoming one herself.
At the screening hosted at S.H.A.P.E. (Self-Help for African People through Education) Community Center on Sunday night, Solange popped up to watch the premiere of the film, which she also directed, with a live audience for the first time. In the house, local legends OG Ron C and DJ Candlestick spun chopped-and-screwed remixes as album collaborators Metro Boomin, Cassie and Abra settled into reserved seats; Miss Tina, Solange's husband Alan Ferguson and rappers Slim Thug, Bun B and Devin the Dude also dotted the front rows. And social media savant Zola Moon, who appears in the film (and will soon be the subject of her own), worked the room with a cup of wine while black cowboys congregated in the back wearing their Stetsons. Throughout the 33-minute showing in a rec room lit goblin-green, viewers reacted to gorgeous vignettes of Downtown Houston, black cowpokes at an Afrofuturistic rodeo, fluid choreography, trippy animations, protective hairstyles and Y2K-meets-hood-chic couture.
After the showing, Solange held court with art curator and critic Antwaun Sargent for the room full of personalities she'd brought together — the bad bitches, music execs, reporters, community leaders and double-cuppers. Sitting stylish in a black bra top and white cowboy boots, she explained how pivotal coming home to Houston was for her creative process after nearly a year of touring and dealing with treating an autonomic nervous system disorder. As she tells it, she quietly rented a house on Wichita Street in order to realign her body and mind — and when she felt like herself again, made music to immortalize her place of solace.
"I think anytime that you go through something like that, you crave and you yearn [for] things that remain the same," she told the crowd. "I know at any time in my life I can come back here to Houston, to Third Ward, and have these anchors that really lift me up." She giggled at mentions of the group chats that have kept her grounded, reminisced about producing the album while listening to Stevie Wonder, Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane. She was a visibly relaxed version of herself, comfortable in a space she'd created, working in a more insular mode than on her previous record. "With A Seat at the Table," she explained, "I had so much to say. With this album, I had so much to feel. Words would have been reductive."
But that feeling is not immune to the realities that threaten to change Solange's black-owned utopia. Recovery efforts after 2017's Hurricane Harvey have been slower in Houston's low-income and black communities, and gentrification in the Third Ward has dwindled affordable housing options. In that way, When I Get Home serves as much as a living preservation of the character of Houston as a sonic expansion of it. "Black skin, black braids / Black waves, black days / Black baes, black days / These are black-owned things / Black faith still can't be washed away / Not even in that Florida water," Solange rhymes in "Almeda."
"It's a snapshot of now — of life for a black woman in America, and how the black woman chooses to define herself and express herself," Houston rap superstar Bun B told NPR after the event. Metro Boomin, who helped produce "Stay Flo," agreed: "It's just a lot going on in the world, a lot going on with black people, a lot going on with people coming for our culture. This just sheds some light in a positive way."
"There aren't that many women who produce, write their own s***, direct their own. I do that all, too, so I know what it's like to have this maelstrom in your head," added Atlanta artist Abra, who contributed to the song "Sound of Rain." "Just to have someone feel you, and then be able to take that 'I feel you' and translate it into this [project], that's validating."
As much as it is an ode to this sense of place, Home is also about Solange embracing her own duality — that same duality that has made Houston famous for music innovation for years. Whether it's string-assisted and sizzurp-soaked freestyles from Screwed Up Click, the dynamic hip-hop/jazz fusion of Robert Glasper or ominous, Auto-Tuned trap amalgams from Travis Scott, Houston reinvents without losing hold of its traditions. Solange continues that creative ethos and embraces all sides of herself in the process — pushing listeners' comfort levels into the realm of the avant-garde, but keeping the heart of it all distinctively down-home.
"I can't be a singular expression of myself. There's too many parts, too many spaces, too many manifestations," goes one line on the album's "Can I Hold the Mic" interlude. There is no singular black experience, no matter where you grew up — but in asserting specific ties to her city, Solange makes her experience feel warmly universal. "Anytime you truly feel seen, you just feel a certain level of joy," she said toward the end of her discussion at S.H.A.P.E. "That's what home does for you. ... Nothing is going to make me feel like this place does."
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.