Space is limited here, so I had to make some tough cuts as to which albums to talk about this week. It’s not a bad problem to have, as there have been riches in the new music department this week. One of the most notable was Bon Iver, which practically turned itself into a computer on “22, a Million” — check it out, because it’s great, but then prepare for the machines to fully take over, because if it happened to the guys who made “Skinny Love,” it can happen to you.
“A Seat at the Table,” Solange
It’s unfair but true that Solange Knowles is better recognized by the average person for her last name than her music. But her family tree is irrelevant to her fans, who aren’t blinded by the shine of her sister Beyoncé.
Solange has always seemed comfortable as an outsider in the music world, at home among independent collaborators and peers, where her sound never has to conform to align with the radio.
“A Seat at the Table” isn’t a request for mainstream acceptance, but it may bring that anyway. The album is a funky, catchy and cohesive artistic statement. It is R&B only in the broadest sense, experimenting with breakdowns and interludes that make the full songs more powerful. “Cranes in the Sky” is a tale of how to cope, and how not to. In “Mad,” Solange’s falsetto hovers beautifully over a backbone of a bass line and piano keeping the rhythm while Lil Wayne delivers a startlingly personal guest verse.
The album makes personal statements that are also political, and vice versa, simply by nature of how someone like Solange is seen in this country.
Writing from the perspective of a white male, it is easy for me to step away from issues of race or sex if I want to — all it takes is turning off the television or logging off Twitter. It is not an act of resistance for me to thrive, or even just live; but intimate topics on this album take on a much larger significance, because for her, oftentimes, it is.
I don’t know what day to day life is like for a black woman, the difficulty of simple existence compounded by an identity that has, most generously, a complicated relationship with the power structures of America. “A Seat at the Table” is an album about life generally, and the life of Solange specifically. It serves as a work of empowerment to people who can relate to her experience and an education for those who cannot. Everyone would get something out of a listen.
“Atrocity Exhibition” Danny Brown
Danny Brown’s creative persona has revolved around hedonistic extremes that can function as encouragement to party, but actually offer a deeper look at depression and drug abuse. His last album, 2013’s “Old,” was polarized, its sides split into one of gritty, serious raps and the other of EDM-fueled bangers. His latest album meshes the two styles, resulting in music that sounds manic, not at all like a guy who should be moving in the direction of inner peace.
Take “Ain’t it Funny.” A delirious beat bounces jovially as blaring dissonant synths ring potently — it sounds like how I imagine PCP feels. Brown starts out dropping boasts and punchlines before he describes his demons in painful detail; “Might need rehab, but to me that shit pussy;” “Can’t quit the drug use or the alcohol abuse, even if I wanted to.” It goes from funny to genuinely concerning.
There’s plenty disturbing about the themes, but Brown’s continued originality makes him still one of the most interesting voices in music today. His squawking has always had a cartoonish intensity that doesn’t sound like anyone else in rap, and “Atrocity Exhibition” infuses the instrumentals with the same kind of fiendish intensity. “Tell Me What I Don’t Know” has a psych rock feel, while “Lost” chops up a soulful sample and mixes in horns expertly.
The album is mostly a deep dive into Brown’s psyche, but the guests that do appear are distributed perfectly. The posse track “Really Doe” benefits from a hook by Kendrick Lamar, as well as great verses by him and Earl Sweatshirt, who has recently morphed into another depressive rap figure. The experimental South African singer Petite Noir lends his vocals to the haunting “Rolling Stone,” and the somehow-not-yet-a-star Kelela contributes to “From the Ground.”
All things considered, “Atrocity Exhibition” is as genre-breaking an album as I have heard in a long time. Fitting, because Brown is unlike any other rapper — none would name an album after an obscure Joy Division song, and make rap that sounds more like post-punk than I ever thought it could.