SZA’s debut album, Ctrl, has been a long time coming but with an album of this quality, I’m very willing to forget my past impatience. It stumbles sometimes as a fully realized and cohesive project but each individual track is thoughtful and well-crafted and no track is ever boring, especially when you’re always waiting to hear what SZA will do with her voice next. The lyrics are down to earth and frank and remind me of late night rambling conversations with close friends, softly intimate and honest and vulnerable. The music too is comfortably familiar with an overall retro feel that pulls from soul and folky-pop musical traditions while cozily placing Ctrl in 2017 with more modern indie R&B and hip-hop elements, separating SZA from her fellow R&B/neosoul peers and giving the album a unique and subtly surprising sound. It’s a thoughtful and authentic record and I can’t help but think that the three year gap between Z and this album was a period of serious (and perhaps necessary?) introspection and growth as SZA came to terms with who she is as an individual and artist.
The album was a relatively easy listen and a perfect length. Each song is an individual track and is easy to distinguish from others. The production seems at first simple but upon further listen, one can tell that it’s sharp and well-executed and a lot of thought went into every instrumental and mixing decision, resulting in a very well-balanced set of tracks. Overall, it sticks mostly to the r&b/neosoul sound on songs like “Love Galore” or “The Weekend” but when it veers from that, the change is a bit jarring in terms of musical cohesion. “Drew Barrymore” and “20 Something” are well-executed tracks that have a sort of throwback, grungy singer-songwriter feel but sonically they seem a bit separated from “Garden (Say It Like Dat)” or “Broken Clocks”, which firmly lie within the more typical R&B genre and explore seemingly different musical themes. Likewise, “Prom”, “Anything”, “Normal Girl”, and “Go Gina” run more indie-electronic-pop with “Normal Girl” and “Go Gina” especially having a britpop sound circa mid 2000s. That being said, despite the fact that the overall album flows a little staggered, the individual self-contained tracks are full of interesting musical ideas and no song seems superfluous in the overall structure of Ctrl, especially because SZA’s performance of each subsequent genre is so masterful.
The highlight of this album is also the glue which holds it together despite the moments of tonal incoherence–SZA’s vocals. Consistently excellent throughout Ctrl, her melodic lines are always surprising and constantly evolving, going in better directions than one initially expects and keeping us on our toes. There’s a powerful emotive quality to her voice as well that really adds to the authenticity of Ctrl’s sound and, combined with her effortlessly executed melodic decisions and sultry and fluid tone, the listener is sucked into the album’s soundscape with relative ease. Likewise, SZA is very in control of how she wants musical ideas delivered throughout this album, especially apparent when one considers her performance in comparison to her impressive features who definitely add to the overall ambience of their respective tracks but only as a supplement. On a song like “Doves in the Wind”, Kendrick Lamar’s verse is more straightforward and snarky, a welcome addition on the politics of sex. However, without SZA’s more nuanced and subtle verses, more like a whisper or sideways glance in contrast to Kendrick Lamar’s more bombastic speech, the song would’ve seemed out of place in Ctrl’s well-crafted balance of subdued frankness.
Lyrically, I thought Ctrl lacked complexity and variety. Like “Love Galore”, there’s a lot of great one-liners throughout but sometimes these statements lose their punch when stacked up against one another and I find myself missing a sort of effortless poetical flow. I do like the lyrical frankness of tracks like “Doves in the Wind”, “The Weekend”, or “Normal Girl”, but wish there would have been songs that delved deeper in order to create a more well-rounded lyrical contrast. I never felt that SZA was holding back emotionally in her lyrics but there was too much crooning stream of conscience and not enough complex self reflection.That being said, thematically I like the lyrics. Forgoing scathing pettiness, they are steadfastly authentic–a great modern snapshot of being a 20-something. I felt always that SZA honestly told me where she’s at right now and where she’s been for these past three years and I feel I could talk to her in turn with no fear of judgement.
My favorite tracks are the more R&B and indie-pop of the tracks: “Love Galore”, “Prom”, “The Weekend” (my favorite track on the album), “Normal Girl”, and “20 Something” (the realest song that makes me want to cry please warn me next time when you’re coming for me like that SZA). Although these tracks capture the disjointed nature of Ctrl, SZA executes both soft R&B and indie pop well and I look forward to her being able to better combine these two musical ideas next album.