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Solange’s ‘When I Get Home’ & The Weight Of Expectation In The Streaming Era

Written By Sam Murphy on 03/04/2019

Illustration by Bianca Bosso

The expectation surrounding Solange’s fourth album When I Get Home was huge, and rightfully so. Its predessecor A Seat At The Table is one of the finest pieces of work we’ve heard this decade and one that established Solange as an artistic and social force. Solange teased When I Get Home on social media for just three days before dropping it, somewhat avoiding the numerous think-pieces about the direction she should go in. Once it dropped though, as the clock ticked from Black History month to Women’s History Month, the opinions flowed, quickly.

The death of the album hasn’t come around as quickly as most presumed. Most of the biggest artists today, particularly in streaming, like Drake, Post Malone or Ariana Grande are always aiming towards albums, quicker than ever before. All three artists have dropped at least two albums in the last three years, keeping streaming numbers high. Some of those albums have been great, some of them have felt like a bloated collection of tracks designed to keep hungry consumers interested.

“Albums have got longer, often clocking in at more than 20 tracks, simply because listening to a 20-track album generates twice as much revenue as listening to a 10-track one,” The Guardian wrote in a piece about how streaming rejuvenated the industry, particularly from a financial standpoint. What this has done has created a demand for more. Drake satisfied it with his 24-track Scorpion while many felt as if they weren’t given enough when Robyn returned with her 9-track record Honey.

Solange’s When I Get Home, on paper, looks to be designed for streaming. It’s a generous 19-tracks long but it’s hard to imagine Solange was thinking about streaming numbers when she added 17 second interlude S McGregor, named after a Houston street. In fact, the 19-tracks culminate in just 39 minutes of music which is even less than Robyn’s Honey. The initial opinion on social media was that it was “not enough”. We’ve waited for three years and all she gave us was an album without a song over four minutes.

It’s interesting to feel as if Solange owed us more than she gave us, or anything at all for that matter. After all, she delivered an album and a film within 24-hours of each other but that’s the way consumption of music on the internet works right now. If we can’t pull three of four songs out to pop in our playlists from a large collection within one or two listens of a record it’s not enough. It’s about fulfilling the rapid rate of consumption and providing choice.

Admittedly, When I Get Home is difficult to get your head around on first listen, particularly if you’re looking for Cranes In The Sky or Don’t Touch My Hair. Initial encounters with the album can feel like you’re listening to a sketch made up of unformed ideas. Songs end abruptly, traditional pop song structures are missing completely and features waft in and out without it feeling like they were there at all. This is no A Seat At The Table, in fact, it’s like no other record around right now apart from maybe Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs or Blood Orange’s Negro Swan.

Inspired by experimental jazz and the sounds of the underground Houston rap scene, When I Get Home is designed to be listened to as a whole. Stay Flo and Almeda are able to stand on their own if you’re looking to playlist a few songs but even then it feels as if we’ve deprived Stay Flo of its gorgeous transition into Dreams or Nothing Without Intention‘s abrupt beat change into Almeda.

When I first listened, I looked for Cranes In The Sky just like I looked for Losing You on A Seat At The Table but if I’d found it, it would’ve been a short pleasure. Instead, Solange has introduced us to a new world, a “stream of thought and reflection” on where home is, as she put it herself. Whether she’s answered it or not is not the point. The entire thing is a, at times otherworldly, journey through nostalgic sounds and futuristic visions.

If anything, we should be praising Solange for making When I Get Home sounds like it’s not enough. It has a tendency to wash over you, but if you dig deep it’s stacked. Solange has managed to place herself at the centre of a universe that could’ve easily been crowded by big name producers like Pharrell and Metro Boomin and artists including Tyler The Creator and Gucci Mane.

These features are weaved in rather than placed. Playboi Carti arrives in a haze on Almeda, his presence necessary but not the main event. Sampha, who took a prominent part on Don’t Touch My Hair, arrives on Time (is) underneath Solange’s rich harmonies. Even Travis Scott, who somehow expertly blended Kid Cudi, James Blake and Stevie Wonder together on STOP TRYING TO BE GOD, failed to make it sound this balanced and natural. On When I Get Home each guest contributes to the soundscape rather than the top line. Sure, you can feel like the guests aren’t contributing enough but they’re giving a brick to Solange’s world, not the whole house.

It’s Solange at the centre, patiently guiding us with impossibly gentle harmonies, unforced moments of personality and an unwavering sense of self. Nothing feels forced. It’s as if she lived and allowed the album to come together in a natural stream-of-consciousness. It’s perhaps the reason she never offered any details as to the sound or concept of the record along the way. She knew it was in a constant state of change and she awarded herself the time to let it simmer.

When I Get Home requires time. Time that’s not often afforded to records in the streaming era. Solange didn’t owe us anything, but if you’re a fan of her you owe yourself time with the album.