When Stevie Wonder, in 1979, put out the long-awaited follow-up to 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life, which had capped his string of acclaimed and best-selling “classic period” albums, many fans and critics—and his record company itself—were nonplussed to discover that it was a sprawling soundtrack to a documentary about botany. Today, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants seems like a charming, if uneven, extension of the instrumental and sonic explorations that marked Wonder’s whole ’70s voyage, one that anticipated the “world” and “ambient” sounds to come in the following decade. In its day, most listeners were just asking where the Stevie Wonder songs were.
In the lead-up to this weekend’s release of Solange’s When I Get Home, the younger Knowles sister often cited Secret Life of Plants as one of her new album’s seeds (sorry), along with music by the Rotary Connection, the late-’60s psychedelic-soul band that introduced the world to singer Minnie Riperton; the avant-jazz of Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra and jazz-era Joni Mitchell; and minimalist composers like Steve Reich. The result is a collection that floats more than it kicks, using repetition of short phrases (musical and verbal) across shifting rhythmic structures as its standout device.
It’s not as radical a departure from its popular predecessor, A Seat at the Table, as Wonder’s Plants was from Key of Life. The two tracks co-produced by Pharrell, “Almeda” and “Sound of Rain,” among others, give some momentum to the general atmosphere of gossamer keyboards, synthesized effects, and high, sighing vocals. A Seat at the Table already had a fairly loose relationship to conventional song structure, even in its catchiest moments, such as “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair.” Like that album, Home uses spoken interludes (with musical underscores) to bridge songs, though they’re more left-field than Seat’s snippets of interviews there with the singer’s parents—they include bits of YouTube videos by healer Goddess Lula Belle and a “Vagina Power” monologue by an online sex-and-spirituality guru.
Solange was never really anyone’s No. 1 source of bangers. People listen to her for waves of empathetic energy, for stylistic freethinking, and for inspiration from a sage of black female power, dating back to her days as a Brooklyn bohemian who mingled as much with young art-rockers as with the pop, R&B, and hip-hop scenes. Still, Home does serve as verification of Solange’s announcement to Billboard a year ago that “I’m not interested in entertainment at this moment.” It feels like the work of someone whose mind has been more on performance and installation art the past couple of years than on generating any pop-radio hits. As sister Beyoncé and brother-in-law Jay-Z did with last year’s “Apeshit” video, set in the Louvre, Solange wants to take over traditionally white high-culture spaces with black creativity as well as black bodies—but she also wants to talk back to the art world in stylistic and conceptual terms.
Solange’s core fan base will embrace Home immediately for its affirmations of black identity and solidarity, womanist self-care, and the Knowles’ Houston roots, the latter in many of the song titles, as well as the samples (Scarface, Crime Mob) and guest appearances (Gucci Mane, Playboi Carti) that pay tribute to Southern rap generally and Houston’s chopped-and-screwed heritage in particular. Not to mention in the affecting old-neighborhood scenes and creative evocations of Western black-cowboy history that crop up in the album’s accompanying short film.
But for more casual listeners who discovered Solange through the Grammy-winning “Cranes” and fell in love with Table’s overall balance of political ferocity and personal healing—it topped Billboard’s album chart as well as many websites’ lists of the best albums of 2016—it’s hard not to wonder if Home will be met with a level of Secret Life of Plants–style bafflement.
That was part of my own initial response to the repetitions and lack of forward drive in many of these brief songs. (Though only two tracks shorter than Table, Home lasts 12 fewer minutes, at only 39 minutes, perhaps reflecting Solange’s fondness for last year’s 15-song, 15-minute album by Tierra Whack.) I’m also not someone usually partial to lifestyle spiritualisms like lyrical endorsements of “Florida Water,” the essential-oils product from Goddess Lula Belle that Solange carried with her at the Met Gala last year and references several times in “Almeda.”
And yet, after several listens and a couple of viewings of the video treatment, I’m beginning to prefer the further-outness of When I Get Home to A Seat at the Table, an album I felt didn’t always live up to its most gripping parts.
The record’s psychedelic-soul and avant-jazz aspects are already catnip to me, but what started to emerge as I listened was how Home translates the chimes-and-chants-and-chirps aesthetic of the New Age tapes you might once have picked up at a health-food or healing-crystal store into an R&B and hip-hop context. Or back into a black-music context, rather, if you consider the influence of Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, and, yes, Secret Life of Plants on that once-burgeoning (and often homespun) genre of music in the first place.
There’s been an ongoing project in some collectors’ and musicians’ circles to reclaim so-called New Age from its scorned status throughout this decade, including freshly minted compilations and reissue labels. I’m reminded of that by the presence on Solange’s album in several places (as a co-producer and backup vocalist) of Panda Bear of Animal Collective, one of the bands that started making the case for Zamfir flutes and Laraaji zithers in the early 2010s. Two more collaborators throughout the album are the keyboardist John Carroll Kirby (who’s worked with Solange before), whose own solo ventures sound exactly like New Age music, and the Parisian pianist Chassol (Christophe-Thomas Chassol, whose family hails from Martinique), who among other pursuits specializes in what he calls “ultrascore,” in which he sets melodies and chords to field recordings of natural and social soundscapes he makes on his travels. He applies the technique to a spoken passage from Solange herself here on the interlude “Can I Hold the Mic.”
Therapeutic Earth-goddess vibes have never been alien to soul and R&B—witness such Solange forebears as Erykah Badu or Minnie Riperton herself. But it’s something else to find them juxtaposed, as they are on When I Get Home, with trap beats as well as vocals and production by the likes of Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt from the hip-hop collective Odd Future. One might expect that such rappers, with their histories of misogynistic and homophobic lyrics, would be barred in the first place from an album by Solange, the wokest of the woke. But clearly she sees a place for their more bitter essential oils in her radically inclusive formula.
It’s this mix of the smooth and the rough, the ethereal and the down-and-dirty—not to mention the archetypically feminine and masculine, and in some perspectives (though not Solange’s own) the stereotypically white and black—that makes Home’s deceptively laid-back ambience more provocative. Solange’s New Age trap—I want to call it yoga trap, but that turns out to be a thing already—could serve as a trial holistic remedy for the conflicts that split not so much the polarized society at large but the subcultural factions within factions within factions. Her album has just entered this mortal plane, of course, and whether it will have the improbable longevity of Secret Life of Plants is another matter. But for those whose first reaction is that listening to When I Get Home seems too much like listening to grass grow, let’s open our senses and let its aural aromatherapy linger awhile. Whether or not it aligns your chakras or what-have-you, it could refresh your resistance, or at least set your inner tuning fork humming at a more just intonation.
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