On the cover of her debut album, SZA sits contentedly in front of a pile of broken desktop computers from another decade. This imagery could fit into the concept of Ctrl, the LP’s title, in any number of ways. After listening to the music and the growth portrayed on this album from the last project, it may be as simple as stripping away the blind reliance of technology and its control on us. Technology is the crutch that most of today’s generation lean on to express their thoughts and take in information. It’s easier than ever to type thoughts and process information behind a screen. Artists do this every day and many even hide behind their music and personas. When all of that is stripped away, it’s amazing how difficult honesty becomes. SZA struggled with identity upon the release of her ‘Z’ EP over three years ago. She was an artist that was still figuring it out and did so by pulling from the current trends and sounds of other artists. The airy, breathy vocals of Jhene Aiko and others drowned by layers of effects come to mind. Here we are three years later and people are clamoring for a new SZA album because absence makes the heart grow fonder. SZA admitted frustrations with her label, but also accepted that she wasn’t ready either. June 9th the stars finally aligned and her album was set free for the world’s listening pleasure. It wasn’t quite a Frank Ocean long wait, but three years is still a long time in music. Would this be the album that everyone had been waiting for?
Fears that SZA wouldn’t grow on Ctrl immediately flew out the window, along with whatever expectations anyone might have for the project the moment first single ‘Drew Barrymore’ was released in January. SZA explained the song’s title by speaking about how quirky and truly herself Drew Barrymore the actor is. This parallels perfectly with an artist like SZA who until this point has not given listeners an inside look into her life. The single has traces of Amy Winehouse and an attitude that hasn’t been seen from SZA before. The song has a warm, inviting feel with live instrumentation and while SZA is singing about her insecurities, she’s at least admitting she has them. Her voice here is raw and stripped of the layers of reverb she once hid behind. Hearing her voice take the forefront on a record begs the question of why someone with a voice this strong would hide it in the first place. Luckily, she stays out of her comfort zone for the entirety of the album and her voice remains one of the main focal points. On the album opener ‘Supermodel’, backed by calm guitar chords and a few drums in the track’s latter half, she recounts a time her boyfriend cheated on her in Las Vegas and she retaliated by sleeping with his friend on Valentine’s Day.
Throughout the album the music’s beauty is starkly contrasted by the hurt and brutal honesty that SZA describes the ghosts of her boyfriend’s past with. Second single and Travis Scott assisted ‘Love Galore’ is bitterness at its finest and a perfect example of this. It tells the tale of longing for an ex-lover but knowing their detrimental to your well-being. Travis Scott coasts over the beat with a predominately sung verse to cap off the ex-lover dynamic. The unapologetic honesty continues on the sultry radio-ready ‘The Weekend’, where SZA details the inner workings of a relationship where she is the “side chick”. Her acceptance of this role and acknowledgement of the other girl make this not only some of the most interesting songwriting of the album, but of the entire year. It doesn’t hurt that the chorus weaves its way into your subconscious by the track’s conclusion.
Speaking of songwriting, Ctrl brings to light how much of a disservice it would be to not give SZA her just due for her pen. As if writing credits for Rihanna and Beyoncé weren’t validation enough, Ctrl is the cherry on top for any doubt that listeners may have had. SZA has an incredible talent of hooking listeners on the first line of a song. Some examples include: ‘Why’s it so hard to accept the party is over” on first single ‘Drew Barrymore’, “Run fast from my day job” on ‘Broken Clocks’ and “Real Ni***s do not deserve pussy” on the Kendrick Lamar featured ‘Doves in the Wind’. Her talent lies in packaging extremely simple concepts and lines in a way that the listener hasn’t thought of them before. On the previously mentioned ‘Broken Clocks’, she could write about escaping a nine to five job in many ways but “Run fast from my day job, Runnin’ fast from the way it was, Jump quick to a pay check” is imagery at its finest. Similarly, ‘Doves in the Wind’ uses Forrest Gump, Jenny, and a box of chocolates and somehow neatly ties up a metaphor about “p*ssy” with them. ‘Doves’ finds SZA going back to her more airy vocals of past projects, but they now have a certain attitude and swagger they once lacked. TDE labelmate Kendrick Lamar comes through with a verse that is every bit as fantastically weird as his work on DAMN.
As confident as SZA has become about expressing her feelings on Ctrl, she still has just as much uncertainty and insecurity as the rest of the world, she just isn’t afraid to tell everyone now. On the thumping ‘Anything’ she sings of giving herself up to a lover just to later ask “Do you even know I’m alive?”. It’s a question that will connect with her audience listening that has been in a relationship where they can’t quite get through to their significant other. ‘Normal Girl’ is literally SZA listing out all of the girls people have wanted her to be throughout her life and then admitting that she isn’t any of them and never will be. Whether it’s the “type of girl you take home to mama” or “your fellas would be proud of” SZA realizes that she can’t keep trying to be the girl people want her to be. Being a ‘Normal Girl’ here is boring in her eyes. The centerpiece of the album doesn’t come until album closer “20 Something”. The whole album leads up to this moment. With nothing but the light strums of a guitar and SZA’s voice, she self reflects on her life up to this point. She sings about all of the doubt, worries and realizations that someone in their mid-20’s has. She speaks on being “all alone still”, “keeping friends”, how “honesty hurts when you’re gettin’ older” and being 20 something without “a phone in my name”. Your 20’s are when the real world starts to reveal itself to you and SZA illustrates the fear that comes with that perfectly. As stressful as the mystery of what the rest of her life may entail, she “hope’s my 20 somethings won’t end” and is “Prayin’ that the 20 somethings don’t kill me” as if she knows she is in some of the greatest times of her life but there is still a great times ahead as well.
’20 Something’ brings the growth of SZA full circle and births almost a new artist entirely. It’s a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on last year’s Blonde by Frank Ocean. Ocean is known for his honest vulnerability and like Ocean, that’s a trait that SZA has nearly mastered in her three-year hiatus. She has simultaneously become more apparent and more mysterious with ‘Ctrl’. Through bearing her soul, she has shown more growth from one project to the next than almost any artist in recent memory. But in being an open book, it makes the listener even more curious of what she’ll do next. Ctrl is the album where SZA started to be herself and in 20 something years we may just look back and remember it as the album she started to become a star.
Repeatable Tracks: ‘Drew Barrymore’, ‘The Weekend’, ‘Supermodel’, ‘Love Galore’, ‘Broken Clocks’, ’20 Something’
By Scott Evans