SZA’s CTRL will garner more comparison to Mary J. Blige’s “My Life”, but it’s a direct descendent of Alanis Morrisette's’ Jagged Little Pill. Morrisette's’ third studio album would become a benchmark in the alt-rock genre. SZA CTRL will become the same for alt-R&B. The track “Supermodel”, is SZA’s own “You Oughta Know”. Searingly honest and specific, both songs are the musical equivalent of throwing a cheating lover’s clothes out into the street. This is a big leap for SZA, as her earlier music was distractingly esoteric. With CTRL not only is SZA arriving, she’s essentially showing up to the party naked.
Over the years R&B has become less romantic and more existential. The Weeknd started this wave with his House of Balloons opus, Frank Ocean turned it into a tsunami with Channel Orange, and Solange gave us a cultural thunderstorm with A Seat At the Table. Out of all that moisture grow’s SZA’s CTRL. The plant life that grows from heavy rains, SZA, the youngest of the pack, seems to have mastered and used all the elements they’ve presented throughout the years. Poetic and culturally relevant lyricism usually found in folk music (“20 Something”), the use of industrial sounds usually heard in electronic music (“Prom”), and the occasional 90s R&B melody (“The Weekend”) are all traits of current R&B/Pop and CTRL delivers with a flawless execution.
Surprisingly grounded for an artist whose aesthetic has always been influenced by space and the future, CTRL is above all a timely album presented by an artist with her own concept of time. CTRL is an album that’ll tell you where we are in a world where pop culture references and buzzwords change so fast no one can keep up. It’s honest without being messy, in a culture where the assumption of a person’s wrongdoing can leave their social media in shambles (a la Rachel Roy). It’s incredibly intimate and yet widely relatable. It’s also a testament to what happens when an artist is able to control their image, their process, and ultimately their art. Some may have thought she missed her time, as we waited years for this album. But it seems SZA’s penchant for mystery, from the huge hair she shrouds herself in, to the oversized clothes she wears, and the way she plays with concepts of time (metaphorically or literally), seems to have paid off.
The stories she tells on CTRL are juicer because, prior to the release of the album, we had no real context for them. Her girl next door persona has always been too cool, so when she sings “Hope you never find out who I really am/ 'Cause you'll never love me, you'll never love me, you'll never love me” on “Garden (Say it like Dat)” it’s harrowingly sad, but also strangely comforting. When SZA, the epitome of cool girl, reveals the lack of love in her life, both for herself and from others, it eases the shame some of us have and makes us feel less alone in feeling unloveable at times.
SZA ponders her unique relationship to her self-image this go round and considering the recent trend in which artists have gone “back to their roots” (Lady Gaga’s JOANNE, Miley Cyrus departure from hip-hop, etc.), it doesn’t come off as pretentious in the least. However, SZA was never not herself. As Buzzfeed’s Bim Adewunni noted, “SZA‘s CTRL is a black girl’s Tumblr come to life.” Any day one SZA fan can attest to that. Remember how she performed at Afropunk 2014 in a oversized tee shirt, socks and slides? She sports a thick pair of white socks on her debut album cover as well—the first time she actually appears on the cover of her project. It’s no coincidence that her album is called CTRL; Black women in the music industry have historically battled to be the leading authority of their image. It took Janet Jackson three studio albums to pull that off. But yet, here we are, finally learning about who SZA truly is, on her own terms.
Her first EP see.SZA.run dropped in 2012. The cover art to that project was a digital collage of flowers, not unlike something your chic art school friends could make. Dark, mysterious, and cool, it was best listened to while high or tripping so you could feel the haunting beats and synths in your chest and blood stream. The beats were a mix of R&B, electro and trip pop. SZA’s jazzy voice was a perfect compliment. The blood lusty navel gazing themes in her songwriting, as well as her use of nostalgia, became a calling card for the black girl from the suburbs with the big hair. In the past five years, SZA has grown a lot. Her unique writing voice really shone through on the bold “Consideration” one of the strongest songs on Rihanna’s ANTI last year. “Child’s Play” allowed her to flex her jazzy vocals as she held her own with Chance the Rapper, a lyrical acrobat in his own right. And the flawless production on her debut album CTLR shows that so far it seems SZA has only perfected her unique voice, clever pen and keen ear for a dope beat.
Musically, she’s not doing anything she hasn’t done before. She’s just doing everything much better. Elements used in see.SZA.run are still there: a diverse and outstanding beat selection, airy vocals, rap and jazz-influenced melodies, and witty songwriting that is either esoterically distant or embarrassingly clever. CTLR makes it apparent that she is an architect of the current chilled out R&B wave many a singer has tried but have struggled to make look as effortless. On “Anything,” SZA makes music to fly rockets to while she vocally twirls over celestial synths and unpredictable bass knocks. At other times she sings over classic hip-hop beats with a flow that could make your favorite rapper’s face scrunch up, like on the Kendrick Lamar-assisted “Doves in the Wind.” On “Drew Barrymore” she bodies a banjo-tinged ballad that makes me wonder what an exclusively folk music album from SZA could be like.
In regards to songwriting, her only competition is Frank Ocean. They both have a conversational way of writing lyrics that make you feel like you’re overhearing your neighbors intimate phone conversation. A curious song, “Go Gina” reads like the dreaded exchange all girls must have with that one friend they’ve grown distant from. Coyly placed after “The Weekend” (the soon to be side chick anthem of the summer), SZA tells a friend in so many ways to mind her own business and perhaps get some dick of her own. The reference to the 90s TV show Martin will have many thinking this is yet another love song, but like most tracks on CTRL, they’re simply about SZA and her relationship with others and most importantly, herself.
The concluding track to her story, “20 Something,” is perhaps the most timeless. Morbidly honest and resonant, it shows that SZA’s pen is as heavy as a Tracey Chapman or even a Janis Joplin. She speaks for an entire generation when she says, “20 something, all alone still/ Not a phone in my name/ Ain't got nothin', runnin' from love /Only know fear”.”Depression, poverty, the fear of an early death—it’s like she took the best nillihist meme from the internet and made it into a ballad. The heaviness in CTRL’s ballads are balanced by interludes in which SZA’s mother and grandmother give advice. Just hearing their voices brings the listener some hope in those moments when the album goes really deep. CTLR is a debut album spilling over with uncomfortably intimate and moments at times. Despite the pop hit potential of the songs, it’s painfully obvious that SZA made this album with the intention of making a timeless body of work in which she shows every part of herself for better or worse.