SZA – CTRL (2017)



sza cntrl

Solána Imani Rowe is an incessant perfectionist. Maybe that’s the most succinct explanation for the four-year-long gap between her signing with Top Dawg Entertainment, a span long enough to make anyone drop out of public consciousness if not for her occasional features, and the release of her debut album, Ctrl. When she talked with Complex in 2013, she was reeling from success but dreaming big: on one hand, she’d had breakdowns and anxiety over both her newfound life and the quality of her music; on the other, she wanted to record with Justin Bieber. And then she just vanished. If you didn’t know better, it might be tempting to speculate that she ended up realizing her dream of getting a studio in Norway to disappear into for a year and “make the craziest album ever.” That album she dreamt up in 2013, the one “with an orangutan on the cover,” was nowhere to be found; neither was Bieber. But, as it turns out, she made that album and then some: she allegedly recorded 200 songs in the years leading up to Ctrl, and was constantly tweaking them when “they just took my hard drive from me.”

The release behind Ctrl – the shifting goalposts, the anxiety, the contrast between internal and external dialogue – serves as a mirror for the record itself. Ctrl is a starkly personal album, one that spends its fifty minutes delving into the struggles that plagued its release. It’s a deeply anxious record from someone who once said that “isolation seems like utopia,” one that rattles around in her own head and feels like it’s exploring well-trodden territory. This means that even her most straightforward songs aren’t that simple, and she can’t help but turn the mirror on herself. As she puts it on “Garden (Say it Like Dat),” “Open your heart up / Hoping I’ll never find out that you’re anyone else / ‘cause I love you just how you are / Hope you never find out who I really am / ‘cause you’ll never love me.”

Ctrl, then, presents a kaleidoscope of hearts, swelling and bursting and breaking all at once – it just depends on the angle you take. “The Weekend” sees her as both girlfriend and side chick, moving back and forth and never quite settling: “My man is my man is your man / Heard it’s her man too.” “Normal Girl” has her looking to be a source of pride, “wish[ing] I was the type of girl you take over to mama,” but also to escape: “This time next year, I’ll be livin’ so good / Won’t remember your name, I swear.” On the other hand, “Doves in the Wind” takes the empowerment-through-sexuality of Beyoncé and empowerment-through-masturbation lineage in pop and R&B (a few predecessors: Nicki Minaj & Beyoncé, FKA twigs, Janet Jackson) and runs with both, framing sex and love as one and the same: “I’m really tryna crack off that headboard / And bust it open for the right one / Is you that for me?”

She’s anxious throughout, about sex, about love, but most persistently about her body image, the clearest line connecting the three. There’s a heartbreaking moment on “Garden (Say it Like Dat)” where she needs her lover’s support but can’t stop thinking about how he’d “rather be laid up with a big booty.” When she apologizes for perceived faults on “Drew Barrymore,” it’s entirely physical: not being attractive or ladylike enough, not shaving her legs. When she asks if she’s “warm enough” for her partner, it’s both physical and emotional; it’s hard not to hear it as “woman enough.” In a moment of counterpoint later in the record, though, she frames her looks (and willingness to change) in a more positive light – “I wanna shave my legs for you / I wanna take all my hair down and let you lay in it.” Which is to say it’s a complicated release, and she acknowledges even that: “Go Gina” is about “cheering the girl with worries, anxiety, and problems to not forget that it’s okay to just live.” Sound familiar?

The instrumentals, fittingly, take on a similarly kaleidoscopic approach; there are echoes of current and older strains of R&B here, live drums and warm harmonies rubbing up against “trap” drums and airborne synth glitters. The record opens with a bit of a sidestep, a jangly guitar joined by a loose-limbed drummer after an announcement of floor-tom and cymbal rolls. “Love Galore,” which follows, floats woozy synths that echo Boards of Canada atop unhurried drum programming that leaves plenty of room for both SZA’s vocal flights and Travis Scott’s pleasantly melodic verse. “Drew Barrymore” could be a Mac DeMarco instrumental if you removed its string coda; “The Weekend” has distanced chipmunk-soul chops and an electric keyboard as a bed; and “Pretty Little Birds” has drums pattering in another room while a warm horn section joins a synth throb that threatens to swallow the rest of the instrumental. The only consistent through-line one can draw for these beats is their laid-back nature, with the only exceptions being the weakest tracks, which crowd her out and leave her fighting for space, such as “Anything.”

Her singing, too, serves as an essential instrument throughout Ctrl. Beyond the lyrical chops she brings to the table, SZA’s vocals keep more ephemeral numbers like “Anything” and “The Weekend” grounded, combining a rap-adjacent sense of flow and a pop-adjacent sense of hooks to create a set of vocal performances equally likely to spin heads and move feet (the coda of “Anything,” the chorus of “Broken Clocks,” the bridge of “Drew Barrymore”). It’s fortunate that the album is bookended with two tracks that are effectively SZA and her guitar; beyond satisfyingly closing the circle, it allows her voice plenty of room to shine. Elsewhere, SZA’s sense of harmony helps to flesh out “Doves in the Wind” (“Sit back, relax…”) and most of “Prom,” not to mention the vocal dives she takes on the latter’s bridge. These are by no means the only spots worth pointing out, but they point towards a larger idea: even if you replaced these lyrics with reference tracks, there would be plenty of sonic details worth grabbing on to.

Which is fortunate: the back half of Ctrl often feels like it’s reiterating upon tracks and ideas already explored, so the textures SZA provides are much appreciated. “Pretty Little Birds” doesn’t have much going for it beyond its aforementioned lyrical nuggets, with the most interesting part of its groove being the aforementioned horns; “Anything,” similarly, has its last minute (where SZA floats back down to Earth) and little else – it’s a weird sonic outlier, with a synth-bass fart and keyboard glitters forming a beat that stutters where the rest of Ctrl speaks clearly. “Go Gina” doesn’t do much beyond providing a glimmer of hope between the uncomfortable, naked honesty of “The Weekend” and “Garden (Say it Like Dat).” they’re very well-crafted, but ultimately forgettable compared to much of the record.

At its peaks, though, Ctrl is a quiet marvel, a shapeshifting take on both love and the sonics of R&B that, perhaps paradoxically, ends up all the more memorable thanks to its refusal to pin SZA down as anything other than a twenty-something struggling with issues of anxiety and self-image and love. It’s this ambiguity that shines through for the record’s fifty minutes, specific enough to give some light into Solána’s personality but also just vague enough to feel like it could apply to anyone her age. It’s an album that feels both deeply intimate and universal, direct and indirect all at once. When listening to Ctrl, it’s hard not to wonder what else is on that hard drive that vanished from her safe – and what else is going to be on it in the future. Maybe she’ll build that studio in Norway after all.

Author: Michael

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