I was a nervous wreck when I pressed play on Solange’s new album, When I Get Home. Her last project, A Seat at the Table, hit me like a ton of bricks from play one, and it sounded nothing like the works that came before it. Knowing Solange’s penchant for flipping the script and never doing the same thing twice, I waited with bated breath.
When the project hit streaming services, it became clear that Texas would be the focal point of yet another album by an exalted, mainstream artist. (You might have heard of a little project called ASTROWORLD.)
Before When I Get Home arrived, Solange subtly teased that it would pay homage to Texas—specifically her hometown of Houston. First, she shouted out Houston rap legends Devin the Dude and Mike Jones on social media in the days leading up to the album’s release. Devin is an underground legend to many worldwide, but in Texas, he’s a prominent figure of cultural royalty, and Solange saluted him by previewing his feature on “Dreams.” The Mike Jones hat tip came in the form of Solange taking over Jones’ now-infamous phone number, 281-330-8004. Instead of connecting to Jones himself, which was the previous purpose of the number, the digits were re-routed to give listeners an early preview of music from the album.
Ahead of the release, Solange also rolled out the tracklist, which featured many song titles that Houston natives identified as familiar. Solange’s mother, Tina Knowles-Lawson, tied the references together with an adorable Instagram caption on the day of release: “And when I get home to Houston I’m gonna ‘Exit on Scott’ street and get some chicken and red beans and rice from Frenchy’s. That evening I’ll hit Nola’s on ‘Almeda’ and get a shrimp Po Boy. Ride by our old house on ‘Binz,’ reminisce and take the ‘Beltway’ to Pappadeauxs, take a trip down memory lane on ‘S McGregor’ where Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad’s daddy Dr. Allen lived and we jogged on the Bayou!”
When I Get Home is unlike anything we’ve heard from Solange before. A Seat at the Table was weighed down, beautifully, by the heaviness of the events at the time, and presented itself as a rumination on what it means to be black in America. But When I Get Home centers blackness through a freeform and light-footed approach, with contributions from artists like the aforementioned Devin the Dude, as well as Playboi Carti, Gucci Mane, The-Dream, Solange’s son Julez, Pharrell, Earl Sweatshirt, Standing on the Corner, and more.
Throughout the album, Solange is laser-focused on introducing the world to the feel of her home state and city, just as her rollout indicated. The first track, “Things I Imagined,” sounds somewhat benign, until 20 seconds in, when a repetitive phrase drops in pitch, mirroring an effect that the late DJ Screw popularized during his brief, but influential, reign in Houston in the ‘90s.
“Not Screwed!” is a 22-second interlude toward the end of the album, but it is the most straightforward reflection of DJ Screw’s legacy. The album credits list Scarface as the featured vocalist, and the track begins with him saying the words of the song’s title. This reflects the statewide recognition that anything slowed down and repeated isn’t necessarily chopped and screwed music. In simpler terms: “Without the DJ, it ain’t Screw!” Collectives like the popular Chopstars, led by OG Ron C, have created their own lane (“Chopped Not Slopped”) for the purpose of respecting DJ Screw’s legacy.
“S McGregor” incorporates both sides of the chopped and screwed subgenre. As Houstonians Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen recite a Pulitzer-nominated poem written by their mother Vivian Ayers Allen, a male voice hovers in the background. “Houston, Texas,” he drawls in a deepened timbre, before following up with, “Texas on they ass,” in the unflappable tone that only a Lone Star State native could properly pull off. The “chopping” aspect of chopped and screwed music manifests itself in the phrase spoken by Debbie Allen (“I boarded a train/Kissed all goodbye”) which is run back twice in a row. In chopped and screwed music, it’s standard to run a favored word or phrase back two times at the minimum.
The following track, “Down With the Clique,” features stabby chops, similar to those punctuated by DJ Screw in the past, and the Chopstars in the present. The production slows and the final seconds grind to a halt, sounding incredibly similar to the audio quality of DJ Screw’s coveted tapes, on which he would record local artists freestyling for hours. Later, on When I Get Home’s “Stay Flo” and “Almeda,” a male voice kicks off each song by saying “Hol’ up,” a key phrase in Houston freestyles, which permeated the rest of the state.
The title of “Stay Flo” is a flip on Sta-Flo, a liquid starch product. Once upon a time (and to this day, in some areas), Texas men were expected to be literally crispy clean, and starch was an extremely necessary tool. As early as middle school, I remember my young black male classmates coming to school with their jeans ironed and creased to the point that they looked uncomfortable.
In Texas, everybody who listens to rap has tried to flow at some point. It’s a rite of passage.
Around this time, I was a self-conscious 13-year-old band nerd, but I was hyper-aware of the activities that other students were engaged in—both school-related and otherwise. One of those activities was freestyling. In Texas, everybody who listens to rap has tried to flow at some point. It’s a rite of passage. Either you’re tasked with coming up with a freestyle on the spot, at the request of another person, or you form a set of bars on your own behind closed doors (like I did). I never flowed in public, but I always had a short verse tucked away in my back pocket, just in case. During lunch periods and school dances, kids would huddle around tables and take turns kicking freestyles while pencil-driven beats were tapped out. I won’t embarrass myself by sharing the whole verse I wrote, but here are the opening bars, which include my childhood nickname: “It’s your girl Neena/I ain’t from Pasadena/I rep Seguin, bitch/Best believe I ain’t no snitch.” That’s all you get! It wasn’t much, creatively, but it was my way of wrapping myself up in the culture around me.
So, when I heard Solange flowing at the top of “My Skin My Logo,” I got emotional. On the surface, it’s just Solo going back and forth with one of rap’s most resilient figures, Gucci Mane. But for anyone who came up in Texas, Solange’s cadence is recognizable. It’s confident, yet lackadaisical. It’s measured, yet mischievous. The Texas influences shine through most clearly when she gets to the line, “I didn't wanna soccer (sock her), she had Gucci on her cleats,” and starts cracking up. Listening back to freestyles helmed by DJ Screw (honestly, any of them, take your pick) you can hear in the voices of the MCs that they had no idea where their flows were going at any given time, much less how they would be perceived. But they were motivated to keep pressing through, just like Solange does when she picks back up after giggling, and continues her verse.
The language in “My Skin My Logo” (“Gucci like to swang, Gucci like to bang” from Solange’s verse and “candy paint, wood grain” from Tyler, the Creator) also serves as the album’s most obvious indication that Solange is dedicated to educating the world about H-Town, and Texas overall.
To give an idea of how strongly Houston rap influences Texas as a whole, the city is a two-and-a-half-hour drive east from my small hometown, Seguin, and its music had a major impact on my family. My mother was a day-one champion for every type of Houston MC: Scarface (and all of the Geto Boys), UGK, Devin the Dude, and Ganksta N-I-P. My older brother introduced my sister and me to chopped and screwed music: DJ Screw, who held down the Southside, and Swishahouse, a Northside label that later brought us the new school of nationally known Houston rappers like Mike Jones, Slim Thug, and Paul Wall. My brother also opened our eyes to the new generation of underground Texas royalty like the late Fat Pat, Big Moe, Big H.A.W.K., Lil Keke, Z-Ro, and Trae tha Truth, among many others.
‘When I Get Home’ is about the feel of Texas rap, rather than specific samples.
The song I remember most from this era of indoctrination is “Freestyle Pharoahs” by Beltway 8, a group named after the toll road that Solange gives a nod to on “Beltway.” The screwed 2000 freestyle is about six minutes long—a winding journey through the personal and public events of the time, expressed through local vernacular. I wouldn’t find out until years later that it uses the same production as Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” remix, produced by Timbaland and released in 1999. When our family wanted to bond, we’d climb into a rotating lineup of hoopties and listen to whatever was popping at the time. But it was these artists, with regional references and voices that made us feel at home, who we always came back to.
When I Get Home is about the feel of Texas rap, rather than specific samples, which is similar to the course taken by Travis Scott with the equally Houston-centric ASTROWORLD. The majority of Solange’s new tracks involve a rubbery bounce juxtaposed against a thick bass line, which combine for a sound that's perfectly suited for banging on a late-night drive down Westheimer in downtown Houston. The album personally feels like the soundtrack to a drive down the hill I grew up on where cars would swang (driving across the road in an interweaved, zig-zag pattern) down every weekend, like we were in Houston ourselves. My sister and I would post up in front of my grandmother’s living room window each time they rode by, mesmerized by the pattern.
The visual form of the album, described in a press release as an “interdisciplinary performance art film,” premiered on Apple Music Friday evening. Throughout the film, Solange uses her specific style of angles, pans, and zooms to cut in and out of the various songs that make up the project. In the visual for “Way to the Show,” as she’s singing the lyrics, “When the thang bang, I’mma ball,” two black men on horseback ride past each other. Later in the film, during “My Skin My Logo,” she features a crew of black horseback riders of all genders and ages, riding at night. These scenes are a realignment of the history of black leisure and hobbies. The contemporary, superficial goal of balling out of control (most notably cemented by Lil Flip’s 2002 single, “The Way We Ball”) was inverted to reclaim and honor the rights of black people to own and ride horses, instead of just tending to those owned by white people.
My late great-grandfather, Eldridge AKA Grandaddy, had a piece of land on the outskirts of my hometown when I was growing up. It was a fully functioning farm that spanned across 25 acres. His parents, Eurot and Johnnie Mae, owned around 100 acres and eventually divided the property amongst their children. At one point, my extended family owned the entire right side of the street, which was named McKnight Road, after our family surname. While my early memories have mostly faded, my grandmother tells me I spent ample time in the country on Grandaddy’s land, helping him tend to the animals and property. Often, it was just me and him together, bonding over our shared experiences. One of the animals he owned was a horse with the personality of a puppy. While it was playful, I was deeply afraid it would find a way to maul me. One day, after specific instructions—place a carrot in the palm of your hyperextended hand—I fed it, and (shocker) it didn’t kill me. But I never got to the point of actually mounting the creature.
It gave me chills to watch the When I Get Home film and see so many black people taking part of a culturally subversive activity such as horseback riding, particularly given the fact that black cowboys were a representative proportion of the cowboys living and working in Texas in the late 1800s and early 1900s. “It is thought that, on some Texas trails, about a quarter of cowboys were black,” the BBC wrote in a 2013 article titled “America's forgotten black cowboys.”
Those men remind me of my own great-great grandfather, Eurot, who traveled by horse and would disappear on the road for months at a time as he followed cattle. His wife, Johnnie Mae, looked after their children and the farm on McKnight Road. Grandaddy’s inherited section of that land was divided amongst his children after he a died a decade ago. The family property that once extended along the right side of McKnight Road has otherwise shrunk considerably after multiple family members sold their portions off.
To this day, black people in Texas, and across the South, are fixated with owning and profiting from land. It’s our way of holding some form of power, after having basic rights and opportunities stripped away through covert and brazen racist practices—both officially (through the government and financial institutions) and unofficially (through local businesses and other spaces with prejudiced owners and workers). It’s an uphill battle being fought to this day, so some choose to just invest in smaller status symbols, like slabs and jewelry.
At the end of “Almeda” in the visual film, Playboi Carti raps, “Diamonds, they shine in the dark now,” as a dark-skinned man with a gleaming grill is displayed against a shadowy black background. As the shot pans out, stars seem to surround him, but upon a closer look, it’s his grill, made to look like expensive stars.
Grills were popularized in the mid-2000s, when Texas rappers like Paul Wall used every verse to call attention to their icy mouths. In Houston Rap, the 2013 book by photographer Peter Beste and author Lance Scott Walker, Wall described what life was like for people in pursuit of diamonds, gold, and platinum. “A lot of people couldn’t afford jewelry,” he said. “It’s all about image, so people would do what they had to do. A lot of people were buying fake jewelry, people were borrowing jewelry, or had their little starter jewelry kits.”
My family didn’t have much, but before she passed in 2009, my mom gifted me with gold jewelry that I still wear every day. (She loved all gold everything, and had a permanent gold tooth with her first initial, T, carved into it.) The one piece of jewelry I bought for myself is a necklace with a small charm in the shape of Texas. “TEXAS” is emblazoned in all caps across the center, as if the outline of the state wasn’t indicative enough.
When the weather isn’t too cold, and I’m not bundled up, it’s clear that I also have a Texas tattoo on my left arm. Every time someone sees how much I’m putting on for my home state, they tease me and say I’m going overboard. But it’s not just me. When I Get Home is a Texas escapade, driven by Solange Knowles across state lines and into the cities and towns of countless listeners who would likely never know the impact of Houston rap on a young girl growing up in Southern Texas.
Between Solange (who will likely have one of the best albums of the year) and Travis Scott (who had one of the best albums of 2018), as well as newcomers like Megan The Stallion, we’re all obsessed with representing and preserving the state of Texas. Can you blame us?