It’s actually a little hard to believe Ctrl – the first full-length from R&B songstress SZA – is finally available. After a trio of releases between 2012 and 2014, See.SZA.Run, S, and Z, her follow-up was consistently delayed. The reason being is still unclear, although she did send out an angry tweet directed at TDE label head Punch. In any case, it is truly here, and it stands as both her strongest showcase and an evolution worthy of her vocals.
In previous records SZA always seemed to be buried under a layer of reverb and murky synth. Not that they were bad by any means, but here she finally lets herself loose. On opener “Supermodel” she shows off her range over minimalistic guitar riffs. While the songs themselves adhere to a traditional structure, she lets herself fly over each one. All the while, she remains easygoing and sonically restless, effortlessly switching flows and pitches. This is nowhere more apparent than her smooth duet with Travis Scott on “Love Galore.”
Lyrically, she concerns herself with modern romance and the troubles of a twenty-something young woman. SZA is sexually free, but still wants to be taken serious in her intimacy. This is explored on songs like “Weekend,” whose hook rings “My man is my man is your man, heard he’s her man too.” Or on “Normal Girl” where she asks if she can be one over potential boyfriends that would rather take her to the bedroom than to meet the parents. SZA recognizes, more than any R&B artist in 2017 that with so many ways to meet people, that also means there are more ways to get hurt. In doing so, she strips away the artifice of a typical swooning love ballad.
That lack of artifice extends to her other millennial concerns. On closer “20 Something” she wonders if she is wasting time, and bemoans the last chances she will have in her twenties. It is both beyond her years and right on time. Other guests include an interlude with James Fauntleroy, a fiery turn from Isaiah Rashad on “Pretty Little Birds,” as well as Kendrick Lamar feature on “Doves in the Wind” that is the album’s only real weak spot. Coming off the heels of the spectacular DAMN, Kendrick’s verse is full of bizarre non-sequiturs involving pussy, and the whole song seems excessive as a result.
That one track aside, Ctrl shows SZA in her element, displaying both her vocal and lyrical range. The honorary First Lady of TDE shows that she can be as tough and tender as any of the rappers on her label.
Released on June 9th, 2017 via Top Dawg/RCA
Standout Tracks: Drew Barrymore, Love Galore, Prom, The Weekend, Pretty Little Birds