Thursday, November 9, 2017

Ctrl | SZA

Upon the release of her debut album in June, singer-songwriter SZA found herself thrust into the ranks of the Knowles sisters as a figurehead for the modern black woman – a significant charge for a young woman who had to fight a much harder battle than a second-gen Knowles should for the release of her album. After delays – both self-imposed and label-rooted – put it in limbo for almost two years, Ctrl found its footing due to its alignment with the current popularity boom for hip-hop. But spare "Love Galore" and "Doves in the Wind," two lackluster tracks included only because they carry big-name guest features, the album is more sophisticated in sonic composition than its radio-dwelling counterparts, dodging most typical chintz of the hits and capitalizing on authentic, unpolished neo-soul and rhythm and blues.

Rawness and vulnerability are terms that have been branded into SZA's hip, perhaps thanks to this album's title and overarching theme: Control and her perceived lack of it in both life and love. Admittedly but admirably flawed, SZA admits many times over that an affinity for "dirty men" has damned her since the beginning. She owns up to things that once would have been twisted to slut-shame the hell out of a woman and turns them into defiant acts of self-preservation, done in pursuit of taking back control. She advocates for vengeful cheating (the two-stepping, slow-burning "Supermodel," on which she reveals she slept with her ex's friend after he went to Las Vegas without her on Valentine's Day) and upstaging the main attraction as a mere side piece: "My man is my man is your man, heard it's her man, too. You're like nine to five; I'm the weekend," she sings over a sultry groove on "The Weekend."

At the record's pivotal moments, she best translates the consequences of reckless, taboo behavior: Muffled automated drums keep "Prom" alive as it recounts a fear that she hasn't matured the way that she should have, while the downtempo "Broken Clocks" watches time melt as SZA realizes that life has slipped through her fingers. There is also, then, the matter of self-worth – a touchy topic for the other woman, the role she plays from time to time. Two-stepping lead single "Drew Barrymore" recounts her humble dream to eat tacos, smoke a joint, and watch Narcos before it magnifies how relentless self-doubt and self-consciousness destroys it all: "I get so lonely. I forget what I'm worth. We get so lonely. We pretend that this works. I'm so ashamed of myself, think I need therapy."

With personal tales of conflict, sexcapades, and self-loathing, SZA doesn't seem to have it all figured out as the album unfolds. And as a coming of age record, Ctrl is striking in the sense that SZA never does figure life out by the end: "Only know fear. That's me, Ms. 20-Something. Ain't got nothin', runnin' from love," she sings on the album's acoustic finale. It doesn't hurt, of course, that her malleable voice navigates well through her soundscapes, which color a bit outside the lines of the typical R&B artist's template, and that the album doesn't have any shortages of solid grooves or melodies. But what really drives this record home is the young woman at the center of it all: SZA, a charismatic, honest woman who isn't afraid to splatter herself, her insecurities, her mistakes, and her secrets across a damn fine record.

Ctrl is available now under Top Dawg Entertainment and RCA.

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