Album Review: CTRL – SZA

Years after the release of Z, SZA’s album CTRL is finally here and it’s practically flawless. While the musicality, rhythms and vocals are all consistently strong, my favorite part of the album is SZA’s lyricism. With great clarity and depth she explores the complexities and nuances of self-control, love and social pressure, along with the way those all interact and clash. A large part of that clarity is due to her willingness to explore her sense of self and personal life with notably thorough introspection. She doesn’t stop at identifying her feelings and opinions, but rather investigates the reasons for those feelings and the sources of those underlying beliefs. CTRL has substance and a unique developed point of view accentuated by great beats and melodies.

From the start, “Supermodel” displays conflicting thoughts about her ex and dives into a contemplation on the role external perceptions and opinions have in forming one’s own identity and perception of self.

Key examples of this album’s substance are all the clips from interviews with family members found interspersed throughout. While interludes can feel disruptive or pointless, these ones do not. They are thoughtful content, presenting morals in a nostalgically familial tone which draws you further along SZA’s personal journey.

The desire for external validation and the impulse to compare oneself with others are recurring themes, but at no point does her exploration of them feel heavy-handed; instead she expresses it with fresh wit and creativity. SZA often employs wordplay, such as with ‘booty’ and ‘body’ in “Garden (Say It Like Dat)” which highlights how pervasively the media’s portrayal of women can influence insecurities about one’s own body image. In this track she shows her self-doubt and self-deprecation and expresses the way social pressures and comparisons spur them on. This want for social acceptance and to fit into a restricted mould of what is appropriate continues to conflict with her personal desires in “Normal Girl”. Likewise in “Drew Barrymore” she apologizes for not being more ladylike and feminine before turning it outward towards those judging her when she reminds them that ‘you got karma comin’ to you’. The frequent lyrical twists like this  remind the listener how strong and empowered a person she is, even when voicing her insecurities and self-doubts.

She manages to be just as honest and vulnerable when she expresses her frustration and irritation with others and the world in general. In “Broken Clocks” she vents frustrations over an ex, her life in general and feelings of ennui. In “Anything” she looks outward in a more spiritual way, questioning whether she ‘should pray a little harder’ and repeatedly asks, ‘Do you even know I’m alive?’

Her ability to create a complex fully-formed image of herself in turn provides a depth to her portrayal of the ‘other woman’. She provides humanity and complexity to a point of view that is often undermined, objectified and pushed aside. In “Love Galore (feat. Travis Scott)” and “The Weekend” she voices the different concerns, anxieties, emotions and desires involved in that kind of relation. Hooks like ‘my man is my man is your man / heard it’s her man too’ perfectly express the complex feelings and perceptions involved in that social situation. SZA’s consistently strong prose and song-writing is part of what makes this album remarkable. She possess not only a fantastic clarity in her expression, but also an ability to play with clichés and idioms creatively. One of my favorite lyrics in “Love Galore”, ‘hand me a paper towel’ reverses the idiom ‘crying over spilt milk’ and is a pithy expression of one’s self-control and independence.

Other great moments include her reclamation of the word ‘pussy’ in “Doves in the Wind (feat. Kendrick Lamar)” and her anthem to the anxieties people experience in their Mid 20’s, “20 Something”.

In terms of production, this album adapts numerous instrumental palettes and influences into its modern R&B sound . It’s inspired by 80’s rock and pop one moment, by 90’s hip-hop and R&B the next. Here it uses instrumentals more common in dream pop, there in chillwave and future. Despite the large stylistic range, each track possesses a polished cohesion between the lyrics, vocals and production. In this way, CTRL at no point feels either stagnant or chaotic. The well-executed variety of styles also means there aren’t any true standout tracks; it all depends on your personal taste. It’s not a matter of skipping tracks you don’t like, but rather putting your favorites on repeat.

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