Top Dawg Entertainment’s all-star roster has almost too many great artists to count. Among them is Jersey-raised R&B songstress SZA. Her inaugural EP with TDE landed back in the spring of 2014. When I first heard Z, I was taken back by SZA’s mature sound and crisp, angelic vocals. Listening to SZA is an experience. Her music draws inspiration from many styles, artists, and decades. But her chill and earnest approach to song making separates SZA as one of the most original creatives out. I can best describe her sound as atmospheric, intoxicating, and organic. Her mostly mellow and spacey production is accompanied by ambitious experimental vocal editing. SZA’s lyricism tends to pull from her influences as well as her contemporaries such as Björk and Frank Ocean. In her lyrics, she tackles all the ins and outs of relationships, personal insecurity, and unashamed femininity.
Leading up to this major-label debut, SZA experienced many setbacks and release dates. She initially announced this album as being called A back in September 2014. Her mixtape S along with the aforementioned Z were meant to pair with A as an onomastic trilogy. However, after the album took various forms, SZA decided to focus it around the idea of Ctrl. In life and love, we control our own destinies. But we cannot dictate the path of others. SZA explores this conundrum via lyrical transparency. The hook on Ctrl’s opening track “Supermodel” demonstrates this better than I:
“I could be your supermodel / If you believe / If you see it in me / See it in me / See it in me / I don’t see myself / Why I can’t stay alone just by myself? / Wish I was comfortable just with myself / But I need you / I need you / I need you”
An account of lost love and revenge, “Supermodel” embarks listeners on a journey through SZA’s tampered heart.
Across Ctrl SZA finds strength in vulnerability. Her focus is always on love and relationships, but each track hits a different perspective. Ladies and gentlemen, this is how you build a cohesive project. Ctrl continues to feel more and more human as you go down the track list. This is due to her meticulous commitment to telling real-life stories. SZA’s mental recreations illustrate what it means to be young and in love. “Love Galore” featuring Travis Scott details the on-again-off-again tendencies of two lovers who have moved on but haven’t really moved on, if you know what I mean. “The Weekend” shows the singer’s guiltless distinction between love and lust. In the song, SZA is aware of her lover’s day-to-day relationship status. However, when the weekend rolls around, he belongs to her and that’s just the way she likes it.
SZA’s fluid and astute songwriting proves how much she knows herself and how much she still wants to grow. The production heard throughout coincides with her impassioned yet delicate voice. Energetic percussion and watery samples, most notably on “Broken Clocks,” allow SZA to sing her heart out without sounding like she’s trying to impress. This album’s sound blends elements of soul music, minimalist R&B and hip-hop into one cohesive result. Boom-bap drums anchor many of these 14 tracks. Nevertheless, the instrumentals here hardly stagnate. The only track that feels a touch out of place is “Anything”. Its video game-esque synths and 808 drum feel busy compared to the dreamy ambience set at the beginning of the album. That is a minor lapse though.
The only thing keeping this album from acclaim is the consistency of its hooks. More times than not, SZA comes through with something either passionate, relatable, or both. However, on occasion, a handful of these tunes were difficult to recall. Although the writing has overt strength and clarity, it lacks a catchy crossover polish. With that said, SZA is not one to bask in fame. Her pen searches for a purpose rather than a paycheck. Even in brilliance, I felt as though this album still had more to give. I would have liked to hear her shake up the mainstream if only for one more song. However, that is simply not in SZA’s blood. Her poetic proficiency is a reflection of her attention to detail. Ctrl’s greatest asset is its soothing swagger. Altogether it is a fragile, brave, and joyous listen.