On her first full-length, SZA pieces together her wistful, fully-realised R&B aesthetic like an art student’s scrapbook. It’s a twisting mosaic of whizzes, moans and jaunty percussion, all of which serve to enrich her wonderfully candid, sepia-tinted descriptions of lovers gone by. It perfectly encapsulates the unchecked mental states of youth – love, lust, envy and loneliness – and puts her own unique stamp on the genre like no one else since, well, Frank Ocean.
Back in 2014, SZA released ‘Z’, the second in a supposed trilogy of projects which would eventually spell out her name. It still exhibited her charm, and the various goofy musings which we’ve come to associate with her song writing, but ‘Z’ was too jolty for her true character to resonate. She played around with conflicting styles, wearing it a while before tearing it off for the next track, much like an excited toddler rifling through Christmas presents. However, ‘Z’ was a mixtape, and like many mixtapes, this sort of muddled experimentation is to be expected, if not encouraged.
‘CTRL’, on the other hand, is not a mixtape. And, although it taps into a variety of styles, each one is harnessed for a particular effect, and underlined with hazy guitars that tie it all together. ‘Prom’, for example, utilises a Katy Perry-esque pop shimmer to frame her struggles with immaturity, which works on a number of levels: the song itself is likely to be championed by those who share the same struggles and, sonically, the track’s clear pulse allows SZA’s teen-like angst to manifest as a series of moans and cries that glide over the delicate percussion. How else could you audibly capture the youth’s inability to express themselves properly?
Perhaps the album’s most affecting feature, though, is the personality with which SZA coats her various anecdotes. On the opener, ‘Supermodel’, SZA triumphantly boasts, ‘Let me tell you a secret / I been secretly banging your homeboy / Why you all up in Vegas on Valentine’s Day?’ This particular line was met with a barrage of tweets from disgruntled men, most of which consisted of the word ‘savage’ followed by a string of emojis which better expressed their incredulity. This I didn’t quite get. Future kicked off his self-titled album with, ‘Your baby mama fuck me better when the rent’s due’ , but you can’t get upset about that line because ‘it’s just trap music, man’.
Anyway, what’s important here is that, regardless of whether Future was really Atlanta’s landlord from hell, SZA’s anecdote was actually true. When speaking about the event in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, SZA added that ‘CTRL’ will be ‘the first time he hears about it’. It’s these sorts of personal plot twists which add a very real depth to the album, and find SZA’s vocals playing more like an open letter than a series of verses and hooks. Similarly, on ‘Drew Barrymore’, we find SZA cooing, ‘You came with your new friends and her mom jeans and her new Vans and she’s perfect and I hate it / Also glad you made it’. This shameless, emotional fuck-fest of a digression plays out bang in the middle of a bar, planting you right in SZA’s mind as she quickly steadies her course and adds a pleasantry. SZA constantly colours outside the lines when she sings, allowing her stream-of-consciousness, youthful neuroticism to spill all over ‘CTRL’ – and all for the better.
It’s not always that easy to spot, however. ‘The Weekend’, one of the album’s silkiest R&B efforts, boasts about sharing a boyfriend with a number of other women, with SZA’s allocated slot being the weekend. The track itself walks a very fine line between sexual freedom and sexual desensitisation; even the piercing vocal embellishments occasionally wilt in sadness. That said, SZA certainly left this one up for debate, and covered it in so many sensual, melodic elements that you’ll struggle to ever work out whether it’s truly liberating or not; you know, in case you miss the hook.
In summary, TDE’s First Lady has delivered one of the most exciting and unabashedly personal debuts in ages – a debut which constantly pulls and prods at the elastic boundaries of alt-R&B, and implores men and women the world over to embrace their flaws.