Wonderland.

SOLANGE

We went to Houston, Texas for Solange’s powerful, essential album experience.

Solange Knowles When I Get Home Houston Wonderland

Image c/o Solange Knowles.

Solange Knowles When I Get Home Houston Wonderland
Image c/o Solange Knowles.

It seemed very ‘Knowles’ at first, flying out a group of international journalists to Houston, Texas for two days to watch a screening and listen to an album that had already come out on Apple Music. Throughout the build-up and release of Solange’s latest project, When I Get Home, there was a strong emphasis on the locality of it all. This was already being touted as a “homage to Houston”, an expression of the singer’s roots, and one would be forgiven for seeing the elaborate launch event surrounding the album – a whistle-stop tour of places in the city significant to Solange’s upbringing, each playing host to a livecast screening of the album’s accompanying film – as a media-savvy accentuation of this home-grown authenticity. After an hour in the city, however, it was clear that this would be much, much more than that.

There is a disconnect between Houston as it comes, and Solange’s Houston. The vast, faded sprawl of inconsistently designed buildings linked by mega-sized highways and eerily empty sidewalks is a far cry from the jovially melodic lusciousness of the album apparently dedicated to it, and it was only as we begun to stop at each location – her mother Tina’s former hair salon, the church she used to attend, and so on – that the threads of the city with which the album was sewn started to come to the fore. This was always going to be Houston on Solange’s terms.

Solange Knowles When I Get Home Houston Wonderland

Image c/o Solange Knowles.

Solange Knowles When I Get Home Houston Wonderland
Image c/o Solange Knowles.

Though the city actually voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential elections, the clutches of Trump’s America never seem far away, gift shops and car bumpers alike littered with eagle stickers and “from my cold dead hands” t-shirts. With this in mind, it soon becomes clear that When I Get Home is not just an ode, but a reclamation, Solange communicating her city, rewriting the narrative of the place she holds so dear, refocusing the strength of Black identity that the far right in this state has been so keen to eradicate over the last two years. This was why what might initially have seemed like a slightly unnecessary gesture of extravagance was in fact the opposite, the tour showcasing Houston the way Solange knows it, and the way she wants it to be known. For black artistic excellence, via the Museum of African-American Culture. For Black financial control, shown through the Unity National Bank, still the only Black-owned bank in the whole of Texas, into which Solange moved all her money. For Black existence, the Emancipation Gym and park once the only ten acres of green space in the city available for Black people to socialise freely, and celebrate Juneteenth.

Though the tour certainly helped to emphasise the perspectives through which the narrative of When I Get Home are told, it is testament to Solange’s power beyond being ‘just’ an artist that a similar familiarity with her Houston can be ascertained through both the album and the film. This is Solange not as a singer or a songwriter, but as a producer, a curator, masterfully showcasing the foundations on which her art was built, the film and the album duly following suit. This theme of reclamation, for example, plays just as big a part in the film as it does in the physical tour, here expressed through the “Black Cowboys” Solange grew up seeing walk the streets of Houston, so visual in her film yet an image often absent from the popular notion of Americana. She draws laughs from the audience of the Q&A following the screening with her exclamation that “I don’t know who John Wayne is”, but the underlying power in what she is doing is clear.

Solange Knowles When I Get Home Houston Wonderland

Image c/o Solange Knowles.

Solange Knowles When I Get Home Houston Wonderland
Image c/o Solange Knowles.

Similarly, the meticulousness with which Solange produced the physical tour is replicated in her music, the singer underlining the gendered difficulty of being “reduced” to a singer or songwriter, having spent 18 hours perfecting a drum beat, or repeating a guitar lick until absolutely perfect. Expectedly, the hard work pays off brilliantly; the album is immaculately produced, the ethereal vocals sitting perfectly atop a combination of funk guitar, erratically consistent percussion, and slow summer melodies, an appropriate combination of Texas as it is known, and Texas as Solange knows it. “That’s my heart and soul”, she emphasises, and it is not difficult to believe her. “It’s about creating a landscape, and employing these elements to allow that to be built.”

The half-hour film and 19-song album are so packed with other imagery, other themes (religiosity, isolation, empowerment, self-control) that it would be an injustice to attempt and cover them all here, though you would be foolish not to go and see for yourself. Despite this breadth, and much in the same fashion in which she succinctly and suitably answers the questions put to her on stage, everything fits together, a perfect conglomeration of the facets of Solange’s identity, the project giving her “the freedom and space to express all the inner workings of my mind”.

Solange Knowles When I Get Home Houston Wonderland

Image c/o Solange Knowles.

Solange Knowles When I Get Home Houston Wonderland
Image c/o Solange Knowles.

For Solange, it is not just about the reclaiming the past for the present, but building the present for the future. She marvels at how she can Google a picture of Kelis from 10 years ago to make her feel a certain way now, and states her desire for this project to be something a young girl is able to look at 20 years from now to also learn something new about herself. It is not, therefore, just about reclamation, but about building new spaces, new identities. “World-building” Solange calls it, making no secret of the fact that she wants “to make work to be discovered 50 years from now”, and this is where the project really excels.

The film, for one, contains a psychedelic, futuristic interruption of the beautiful film-footage, the concept of futurism put on steroids with strangely hypnotic animations of futuristic, naked cowboys, riding horses through imagined universes and stratospheres. Similarly, the album as a whole breaks boundaries, Solange making the brave choice of playing conductor, sacrificing a place at the vocal forefront for an entity which works as a whole, deploying her big name features (Tyler, The Creator, Abra, Gucci Mane, Playboi Carti to name a few) as if they were instruments in a symphony. If this isn’t “World-building” on a sonic level, I don’t know what is.

Solange Knowles When I Get Home Houston Wonderland

Image c/o Solange Knowles.

Solange Knowles When I Get Home Houston Wonderland
Image c/o Solange Knowles.

It is testament to the emotive energy in the room that, despite being horrifically jetlagged, I am actually sad to be going to bed after the day of events, which has (of course) been concluded with a Texan BBQ spread in a beer hall, courtesy of Solange. As I fall asleep, it is the singer’s parting words that keep coming back to me. “To have something out in the world that feels like a true reflection of who I am – things I love to listen to and I love to experience, a snapshot of myself … that just feels so good.”

SOLANGE

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