SZA: “Ctrl” Album Review

Written By: Ethan Griggs

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SZA is the only woman to be signed to Top Dawg Entertainment, the same label that boast top hip-hop names like Kendrick Lamar and SchoolBoy Q. After appearing last year on the latter’s Blank Face LP, guesting on “Neva CHange”, the New Jersey singer proves she’s able to fiercely hold her own on her debut full length. Following an acclaimed mixtape S and her debut EP Z, Ctrl shows a young talent trying to break through both as an artist and as a human being. Her crisp and refreshing vocals serve as a reminder of why people even sing in the first place.

Although she’s signed to one of the world’s foremost hip-hop labels, SZA’s sound is distinctly new-soul. There’s fat and pronounced boom-bap throughout the album, but there’s also plenty of guitar comping and live drums to fill the mix. The lush yet minimal arrangements on “Supermodel” and “Twenty Something”, the album’s two bookending numbers, recall Frank Ocean’s most recent work. Other songs take more recognition from the current R&B playbook, such as Drake-influenced Travis Scott featuring “Love Galore” and others are heavily influenced by classic hip-hop, like the standout “Doves In The Wind (feat. Kendrick Lamar)” – an epic ode to the pootang. The musicianship and production on the record is simply mesmerizing.

Lyrically, SZA has something to say on basically everything modern culture is concerned with; on “Doves In The Wind”  and “The Weekend” she promote sex as confidante and fluid between those who engage it, while on more thoughtful numbers like “Drew Barrymore” and “Garden (Say It Like That)” are pensive and reflective on the subject. “Am I woman ‘nough for ya outside, baby” she yearns on “Drew Barrymore” with a sad string quartet bowing behind her. Other tracks like “Prom” and “Twenty Something” deal with the both harsh reality of becoming a responsible adult that other people count on and the disdain and difficulty of the transition to that state. SZA assures the listener, “Please don’t take it personal” as she searches herself for the balance.

Ctrl is that rare debut that is able to give the audience a clear vision of the artist without completely revealing the figure behind the curtain. After a few listens through, the listener wants to become more familiar with SZA – go to her shows, delve into her previous work, etc. The powerful femininity in this release is sure to be an inspiration for many young female singers for the near future, as SZA wields her voice as a weapon for thoughtfully and physically independent women everywhere.