The trilogy that began as an acronym — one album for each letter of SZA’s name — instead ends as a key command with the release of her long-awaited debut full-length, Ctrl. Having survived an arduous recording process and SZA’s short-lived social media meltdown about it, Ctrl is a sight for eyes made sore simply from trying not to blink and miss what was expected to be a monumental project from the lone songbird signed to Top Dawg Entertainment. SZA promised an emotive and self-reflective release back when Ctrl was still entitled A. What surfaced on June 9th was a near-perfect confessional that found fans bowled over by the maturation of Solana Rowe’s signature sound, her generosity of spirit, and an effortless knack for the kind of candor that conjures broken car windows, cigarette burns, revenge sex, stiff middle fingers, and plenty of tears.
Days removed from the release of standout third single “Broken Clocks”, Ctrl may have set a new bar for R&B, which has struggled to remain viable in recent years without the help of rappers celebrated for being vulnerable about little more than their vices and dragging their vowels. While SZA plants no flags in the realm of the traditional powerhouse balladeer, she is an impassioned vocalist with a penchant for taking risks. Risk, in particular, is likely what has been missing from the music all this time. In the era of zero fucks, it seems that much more appropriate then that SZA is in control.
SZA’s lyrics across the slow-simmering album resonate well beyond the confines of a diary or a recording booth to remind scorned lovers who have considered suicide — okay maybe just arson or posting a few incriminating texts — when the sorry’s are no longer enough, to say all of the things that end up left unsaid at the demise of relationships. That post-YOLO approach to the creative process first surfaces on “Supermodel”, the smoldering Scum-produced revenge jam that conjures N.E.R.D.’s “Run to the Sun” and finds SZA speeding off of a cliff in a vehicle with no brakes by the opening statements: “I been secretly banging your homeboy/ Why you in Vegas all up on Valentine’s Day?/ Why am I so easy to forget like that?” If ever there were occasion to drop a bomb on an R&B track, this one might be it.
SZA dodges an ex lingering in her shadow on the Travis $cott-assisted second single, “Love Galore”. The Cam O’Bi-produced “Doves in the Wind” places the pussy on a pedestal and nearly reprises Kendrick Lamar’s “head is the answer” refrain from post-Butterfly gem “Untitled 4”. Pulling the cards of serially disrespectful men, the song — though clearly about the yams — is more a PSA to the scrubs of the world that still do not get how sacred the female body is. All of this is sewn up with a roundabout reference to Kendrick’s m.A.A.d. City as SZA riffs on the theme from ’90s sketch comedy show Mad TV. Doubling down on lead single “Drew Barrymore”, SZA takes listeners inside the female body to sing from the perspective of her perceived imperfections against a well-produced track that plays with a nod to early ’90s grunge. By “The Weekend” and “Go Gina”, SZA’s affection for the slow-burning body roll classics popularized by artists like Guy and Keith Sweat and perfected by R. Kelly is pretty clear. Once “Broken Clocks”, the criminally short James Fauntleroy feature “Wavy”, and “Pretty Little Birds” have run, SZA has put all of her cards on the table, taken a deep dive into a web of complicated feelings, and come up with a seamless release.
Working with a dedicated team of producers, including Bekon, Antydote, and Carter Lang, SZA makes what may ultimately be the most important statement of the project with genre-bending, atmospheric production that openly challenges the music to evolve. To live indefinitely outside the lines, on the edge where artists do not play it safe and the academy’s categorical boxes no longer exist.
Concerned with elevating the genre to something that is completely her own, SZA trades in the kind of alchemical magic that can only be derived from the intersection of youthful indiscretion, sincerity, and naïveté in her approach to the stylistic pillars of R&B. Somewhere between the house built by Frank Ocean’s monotone and falsetto and Migos’ signature trap cadences, SZA’s unique manipulation of language in performance moves far afield of clever euphemisms and the temporary high of rap entendres or gospel runs to focus on the deliberate deconstruction of words. Her approach to song structure is one that accommodates bespoke production and the angsty weight of her statements. Practically sounding out her thoughts, she gives tangible shape to emotion and establishes a clear respect for the craft of delivery.
This approach elevates otherwise quirky, multi-tonal, sarcastic, and sometimes nasal observations about growing pains to polysyllabic works of art. Her statements are punctuated by the wise observations of her mother and grandmother, who act as spirit guides eager to dole out advice and look back upon the highs and lows of their youth. With Ctrl, SZA proves that the cult following that ballooned with the release of her 2014 mixtape, Z, was not some flash in the pan, but a deserved wellspring of attention from an adoring fan base whose faith in what she had yet to produce helped to produce the project that could eventually stand as the best thing she has ever done.
Essential Tracks: “Doves in the Wind”, “Broken Clocks”, “Go Gina”, and “Wavy”