SZA’s long awaited debut album Ctrl showcases a queen of the digital landscape. Gone is the chillwave reverb of her 2014 EP Z, as Ctrl features pop-R&B production, distinctively clear vocals and lyrics that tackle young love most bluntly. A decent soundtrack for summer romance, even if some tracks get lost in the background.
Make no mistake about it, SZA’s lyrical take on Ctrl is delightfully playful. The concept of turning the corner to finally seize control of your life resonates clearly. She delivers the theme in a style that’s all her own. The album opener “Supermodel” is all chill-crooning, lazy-Sunday-vibes for the first 45 seconds. She then gently drops a bomb on what I can only assume is now an ex-boyfriend: “Let me tell you a secret / I been secretly banging your homeboy.” On the path to finding ourselves, we must begin by owning our own mess. SZA? She owns it right upfront.
She is refreshingly blatant about calling out the men in her life. Peppered throughout the album are lines like “How you want me when you got a girl?” in “The Weekend” and “Why you bother me when you know you don’t want me?” in “Love Galore” featuring Travis Scott. She manages to stir up some real and relatable feelings.
So her vocals ring true, that’s for sure. However, I disagree with our friends at Pitchfork and NPR Music on how groundbreaking this album is. With track titles like “20 Something” and “Prom,” she is definitely catering to a younger audience. Her words deal with life and love in your mid-twenties, but where they express vulnerability, they also lack depth. Just a few days ago, Pitchfork insinuated that Kendrick Lamar’s flow on “Doves in the Wind” are shallow and groan-worthy. Yet at the same time SZA’s “Prom,” and specifically the lyrics “Fearin' not growin' up / Keepin' me up at night / Am I doin' enough? / Feel like I'm wastin' time” were regarded as “the album’s finest moment.” Isn’t that giving a little too much credit here?
Most importantly, I can’t get past the fact that most of the songs on this album don’t actually sound that interesting. It’s like the production team took the feedback from her Z EP (primarily that her vocals didn’t shine enough through all the hazy texture) and made the decision that Ctrl would have unmistakable vocals and only the most accessible-sounding beats. Her repertoire oscillates from traditional R&B flavors (“The Weekend,” “Garden (Say It Like Dat)”) to safe pop melodies (“Prom,” “Drew Barrymore”). There’s also some more earnest acoustic songs thrown in the mix (“Supermodel,” “20 Something”). The only track I find musically intriguing—“Wavy (Interlude)” featuring James Fauntleroy—is ironically just one-minute long. It showcases a deeper, sexier vocal palate and just a tease of her range in a more elegant way. “Pretty Little Birds” featuring Isaiah Rashad is also musically interesting in this vein, to its credit.
Ctrl was released at least one year late and certain tracks have the hallmarks of a trend that’s already a little past its prime. The Afro-Caribbean beat on “Love Galore” featuring Travis Scott? Very summer of 2016. The incorporation of wise mother’s voice has become a little played out as well. If you’re going to do it, it better be damn effective (see Amber Mark’s 3.33am).
“Normal Girl” is one of the more genre-bending songs on the album. It deals with SZA’s desire to be the ideal lady that makes everyone proud. Unfortunately, keeping everyone happy sometimes involves regressing to the mean, in this case releasing an album that falls a little flat.
Notable Tracks: “Normal Girl” | “Pretty Little Birds” | “The Weekend” | “Wavy (Interlude)”