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Let’s get this out of the way now: whatever artistic debt Solange owed to her older sister Beyonce when she first started out is more than paid now. The two make very different kinds of music which, if it wasn’t apparent before 2016, was made clear by the very different albums the two put out this year. I may be in the minority in favoring the younger Knowles but that’s because I tend to prefer my girl power songs introspective over anthemic. While I probably wouldn’t put it on at a party, “Cranes in the Sky” gets more replay from me because it feels like a warm embrace from an empathetic friend, albeit one who is radically woke and wants to pass along her insights into years of oppression as much as she wants to offer comfort in shared pain (also, I don’t have very many parties).
There were several strong records that addressed the singularity of the black experience in America in 2016 (see Blood Orange, Frank Ocean, Childish Gambino, among others) but none were quite as transcendently, painfully gorgeous as Solange’s A Seat at the Table and “Cranes in the Sky” is the album’s early peak. Like the titular birds the song evokes a delicate grace, the instruments and vocals unadorned but stealthily powerful. At the start Solange’s airy voice settles over a simple percussive beat and tentative strings, knitting together in a mournful funk that both enfolds and unsettles the listener. What at first sounds like a litany of post-break-up salves (Solange has variously tried to drink, dance, sex, and read “it” away) soon becomes a eulogy to all the things in life that can’t be changed, particularly for black women trying to make it in a world that, more often than not, devalues them. While the repetition of “away” in the refrain almost seems in danger of floating off, it’s the insistence that “Sometimes I don’t wanna feel those metal clouds” that pins it all back in place. It’s self-assertion as origami, a folding up that also gives oneself shape. We’re all works in progress, and our best chance of surviving together comes from accepting that.