Solange's 'When I Get Home' And The Avant-Garde Repurposing Of DJ Screw & Houston Hip-Hop
In her latest album, When I Get Home, Solange repurposes Houston rap in a way that shows its significance as high-brow art.
There’s been a southern feel to Solange‘s most recent albums. On A Seat at the Table and the recently-released When I Get Home, there’s a calm and warmth that’s indicative of the artist’s roots in the South, particularly New Orleans, Louisiana, and Houston, Texas.
When I Get Home feels more regional than A Seat At The Table. Although experimental in some ways, the latter was grounded in soul and R&B familiarity, maintaining a traditional sound that was just challenging enough to still be accessible. When I Get Home finds Solange exploring the more psychedelic funk and soul of black music, repurposing the sub-genres — as well as Houston hip-hop — in a way that feels like a slab ride to the cosmic beyond.
Houston has exported many a significant figures to black music, most notably Solange’s sister Beyoncé. But, for rap fans, the city’s creation of chopped and screwed music, courtesy of the late DJ Screw, is an integral part of rap’s evolution. Credited as the inventor of chopped and screwed music, DJ Screw’s experimental approach contrasted the fast and upbeat production of most southern rap being made before and during the early ’90s.
By slowing down the music, Screw had dramatically changed not only how a song sounded but felt. Take Done Deal, one of his earliest mixtapes. The almost two-hour long tape finds him transforming Spice 1‘s “Tell Me What That Mail Like,” LL Cool J‘s “Who Do U Luv,” and Aaliyah‘s “One In a Million,” into droning, sluggish remixes, the production and vocals distorted to the point of being unrecognizable. But it’s infectious — the menace of the heavy drawled out vocals; the mellowness of the beats. There’s a hypnotic allure to chopped and screwed music, the repetition of certain parts within the songs only contributing to that feeling.
What Screw was doing was avant-garde. Just as J Dilla redefined rap production by ignoring his MPC’s quantization feature, Screw redefined rap production by slowing it down, manipulating the pitch control on his turntables to warp songs into something strange — psychedelic even. But terms like avant-garde and psychedelic have often been associated with white musicians, their experimentation commonly given thorough analysis to not only explain but celebrate their contributions.
In repurposing the aesthetic Screw invented, Solange is encouraging the late producer’s technique to be seen through an avant-garde lens. The reframing of Screw and Houston rap music as high-brow art not only creates a union between this and Solange’s music, but adds to the legacy of black progressive and psychedelic soul and R&B that exists.
Solange offered hints of this union shortly before the album dropped. In a snippet video posted to her Instagram, she teased the song “Dreams,” which features Devin the Dude. The rapper soundtracks a group of black women with a whispered rap delivery as they complete a choreographed routine that appears to honor Parvati, the mother goddess in Hinduism.
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She then followed that up with another post dedicated to Mike Jones, encouraging fans to call up the number “281-330-8004” so they could hear snippets of the album. The number was popularized in the rapper’s 2005 hit single “Back Then.” (Jones doesn’t appear on When I Get Home though.)
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But it’s Screw whose influence is felt throughout the album, subtle but just present enough that it’s recognizable.
The first half of “Things I Imagined,” finds her manipulating her voice in a way reminiscent to how Screw warped the vocals of other artists. Initially, she sounds normal but as she repeats the phrase “I saw things I imagined,” her voice changes, sporadically dipping to a menacingly low delivery before returning to normal.
“S McGregor,” the song after “Things I Imagined,” is a much more explicit homage to Screw, as the song chops up a sample from the Mother’s Day TV special Superstars and Their Moms and repeats it, all while someone utters “Houston, Texas” and “Texas on they ass,” underneath it. This was Screw’s way of branding his tapes, filtering his voice to a low, bassy boom muddled in the music.
Even in its brevity, “Not Screwed! (interlude),” which comes toward the end of the album, also honors Screw, as Houston rapper Scarface offers a disjointed spoken word freestyle about “stars and space,” in that distinctive voice filter Screw popularized.
But the most important, albeit less notable, homage to Screw is how each track bleeds into one another, a brief piece from the preceding track lingering into the next. The approach honors one of Screw’s key techniques: where he would play the same record on both turntables and delay them by one beat, quickly moving the crossfader from side to side. This resulted in words and beats being repeated while the tempo remained uninterrupted.
“The technology we have today makes it real simple,” Lil’ Randy, a DJ who appeared on numerous Screwtapes, explained to Red Bull. “They doin’ it now because of Serato, and all these other programs that they got that tell you the beat count. But doin’ a blend? Screw was doin’ that straight off his own mind. There was no machine that was showin’ him how to do it. The turntable didn’t have a beat counter on it. Nothing had a beat counter on it. He was just actually listening to the song through his headphones and hearing a beat count in his mind. There was no such thing as BPM to him.”
Since Screw’s death, the technique and sound he pioneered has extended beyond its Houston rap roots. And although we’ve seen rap artists like A$AP Rocky and Drake co-opt the sound and introduce it to a new generation, it’s refreshing to see someone actually from Houston celebrate and highlight him in a way that emphasizes just how radical he was.