SZA's debut album "Ctrl" is the perfect introduction to the singer for any would-be fan.
SZA emerged from a lengthy hiatus with the release of her debut studio album, Ctrl. The singer-songwriter bursted on the scene lowkey with her See.SZA.Run in 2012, and found her fame bubble up when she signed to TDE in 2013 and released Z a year later. She's since made herself at home in the alt-R&B genre; a meditative refuge from trap beats and in-your-face hooks.
On Ctrl, the songstress offers impressive and progressive production, that stays true to the leisurely tempos and measured experimentation of her past work. SZA's songwriting has only improved, time and space since her last release has allowed her to explore these skills further. She's no longer using abstract metaphors to get her point across, instead she's incredibly blunt with the listener through out the project, juxtaposing what something "should" sound like with, at times, harsh realities. The album is a peak into SZA's love life up until 26 years; she's lays it out all on wax. Despite it being a much-treaded topic, SZA's approach-- that of unapologetic honesty, mixed with the uncertainty (which plagues us all), and the shunning of traditional gender roles-- makes for a very refreshing point of view.
The album begins and ends with tracks rooted in subtle guitar riffs and SZA's impeccable vocals. The openness through out her lyrics on Ctrl often reflect one of SZA's main struggles: Desire. In all its forms, and often with intersecting implications, SZA finds herself in a battle to realize her own self-identity, struggling to keep up with outside expectations. It is in this vein that the heart of SZA's album exists.
Through out the album, we find SZA in a state of uncertainty. She's caught up in various hot and cold romances that leave her unsure of even her own feelings, in situations where her insecurities clash with her self-respect. The singer's melodies are perpetually off-balance, wavering up and down like her romantic explorations. The production, the majority of which has the fingerprints of Scum (Tyran Davidson) on it, utilizes the shallow tones of trap percussion while keeping the overall pulse of the music almost subliminal, leaving SZA's up's and down's to create the motion throughout each track.
In "Love Galore," SZA's early-released infectious duet with Travis Scott, the singer is reunited with the man she once pushed away, while still ruminating on past actions. "Why you bothering me when you know you don't want me?" she asks over a chorus of "Long as we got love" -- but do they? Even the very harmony of the song itself never fully resolves much like SZA's relationship with her estranged ex.
Love within the context of SZA's album is a constant state of flux, as it tends to be in the first quarter of one's life. One second she's confident with her actions, and another she doubts herself-- "I get so lonely I forget what I'm worth" she sings on "Drew Barrymore," before she counters it with no-fucks side-chick-confidence on "The Weekend" and immediately following it, the empowering "Go Gina." She's back to questioning herself on "Normal Girl," singing, "Wish I was the type of girl you take over to mama/The type of girl, I know my daddy, he'd be proud of/Yeah, be proud of."
The reality is that SZA's own journey to self-actualization is littered with discarded men that no longer fulfill the role that she's looking for-- it's notable that SZA plays the role of the boss here, she determines the worth of the men in her life. As a 20-something, she's able to flip the script on typical relationship roles confidently, however she's still unable to shake the fear and doubt that comes along with being a 20-something-year old-- as a millenial, SZA may be much more carefree when it comes to what love looks like and how it's expressed than eras previous, but this idea that she does not know what the fuck she's doing her 20s is time-tested. The songstress effortlessly addresses this in the album's closing track, the perfect way to end the 14-song offering.
"20 Something," a lowkey guitar-riddled track that feels like it could be an acoustic cover, wraps up everything expressed throughout the previous 13 songs succinctly in one idea, and one song. It's also who the album was made for: 20-somethings. Those are who will relate to the lyrics and the concepts here the most, to be sure.
SZA's Ctrl is a coming-of-age story told by a woman raised in the era of smartphones and reality television. She's known love and heartbreak, false affection and meaningless flings; fighting insecurities while fighting to find some sort of security in this dystopian world of ours. The album explores these emotions in a context that's so raw and pure that it seemingly puts you in the heart of such real and painfully relatable situations. SZA feels more authentic than ever, she says all the right words to make the lyrics act as a mirror for yourself. One of music's most enigmatic artists translates her quarter-life crisis into a masterclass on defining yourself on your own terms.