When I was introduced to Frank Ocean, it was the imagery of “Novacane” that caused the world to briefly stand still. He drew me in from the first Viagra popped and didn’t cease captivation until that final novocaine note. It only took that brief moment for me to see his prowess as a poet, to know his pen was special. The same qualities that attract me to lyricists draw me to songwriters: descriptive, poetic, and a way with words that warms the ears and stirs the soul. Sampha, Sonder, and Syd all dropped albums this year that made me appreciate their ear for music, their strengths as vocalists, and the potency of their pens. R&B has been good to us for the first half of 2017. With that said, the one songwriter that I have looked forward to most is a woman who made the world freeze just like Frank. Since the very first announcement of Ctrl, I have been wanting to hear from SZA.
“Child's Play” is my first true memory of SZA, the song that sold me on TDE’s blossoming songbird. Being a child of the blogs, the sample of XXYYXX’s “About You” was an immediate source of nostalgia and formality. I wasn’t prepared for her sultry voice to sing over the haze-inducing synths, “Ripping the heads off my Barbie dolls.” It begins an abstract visual of a child at play, mentioning Ken and Skipper, Nintendo and Street Fighters, Othello tragedies and Shakespearean sorrows―it’s brief but fascinating, like a dark twisted Disney movie. It was my true introduction to a songstress who wasn’t here to tell us the same stories from previous writers but a poetess who brought her own book.
SZA never allowed us to read her book cover to cover, opting instead to share snippets of chapters. The 10 track Z EP was good, offering some golden moments that only further solidified the notion once her potential fully developed a star could be born. What I found most impressive, though, were songs that didn’t make it beyond SoundCloud and YouTube―the seductive “Teen Spirit,” the spirit-elevating “Divinity,” and the absolutely exquisite “Sobriety.” Her honesty is brutal, the beautiful pain that comes with reflecting in the storm of a crisis. She has an uncanny knack for singing all the words that most lips would seal and most souls would bury. All of these songs and her various features continued to build an anticipation and create a hive of followers who were ready to see the songbird allow us a listen to the secret album that's been kept under wraps.
RCA has stepped in as the major label backing her. Rihanna and Beyoncé both utilized her penmanship for their critically acclaimed releases. Fans have been begging and pleading, all eyes have slowly fallen upon her; Ctrl is the biggest moment of her career thus far. This truly feels like a debut album that could very well mark the beginning of a glowing career. I can’t recall the last time so much attention surrounded an emerging songstress. It’s an exciting time to witness what happens when the butterfly first emerges from the cocoon. Whether this is her first album or her last album, in this moment, SZA is in complete control of our attention.
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish.
Supermodel SZA has a nice ring to it. A woman’s voice. She sounds pretty serious. A piece a paper being crumpled. An ambient guitar is rather elegant on the ears. SZA just arrived. Singing in a rather rushed tone. Getting a lot of her chest. She’s going off on some guy and his new hoe. Sounds like a woman that could melt the sun with this kind of tirade. Did she say she's been secretly sleeping with his friend? Cutthroat. Vocally nice. I feel like I’m invading a private conversation between two lovers about to explode. The black version of Mr. and Mrs. Smith. There's so much passion in her tone. Verse two, she’s now confessing how she needs him; this is already becoming a shit storm of altering emotions. Pain and passion. Love in its raw and most destructive. SZA isn’t the strongest singer but she has such a unique vocal tone. Production just switched, increased tempo, the song is really coming to life with these banging drums. I must say, this is a pretty insane start. Nice knock. A whisper voice. I can’t make out what he’s saying.
2. "Love Galore" (ft. Travis Scott)
I shuddered at the thought that Travis would have SZA over a “Pick Up The Phone” type beat but their union is far more pleasing than I imagined. Such a soothing tune, one Travis guest feature I sorta like. SZA comes in sounding like a sunbathing angel daydreaming about marriage and baby carriages. But then she shows her Rihanna-esque horns once she starts to dust off a love interest like basement spiderwebs. Lyrically, “Love Galore” would’ve made an excellent Rihanna single. I wonder if it was originally written for her but hearing SZA talk with such unabashed spunk is rather enjoyable. She isn’t a damsel in distress, but capable of being brutal. Not a role she plays often in her music. This is a woman’s summer anthem caliber record but it also makes you want to cry in the club so I can’t imagine it hitting Beyoncé levels of dominance. No tears were dropped when “To The Left” hit club speakers. I love how her vocals play in the pocket. It reminds me of how 6LACK does his singing/rap style, which has become natural for a generation of hybrid artists like Bryson and Anderson. I'm always on the fence about Travis on or off this record. Today he can stay. Good song, good single. Not my favorite SZA record but it has the potential to be a record I return to often. I love the breakdown at the end, Houston slow, seductive yet dangerous. I can’t tell if SZA wants to make love or commit murder. A skit at the end, sounds like a grandmother.
3. "Doves In The Wind" (ft. Kendrick Lamar)
Nice little knock! Sounds dusty like they found the drums underneath the crate in grandma’s basement. I’m liking this already. Wow, SZA is not beating around the bush. This strangely sounds like something that should’ve made untitled unmastered. and this assessment comes before Kendrick’s feature. I heard a Forest Gump reference, chocolate, and pussy—somehow all of this correlates with doves in the wind. I'm not sure where this song is going conceptually, but these drums can do no wrong, commit no sin. Kendrick just arrived, he’s going down in history as one of the most animated rappers. I love his cadence on this! So many flow switches, so many changes, Kendrick raps like he was born within the beat's pocket. Naming a song "Doves In The Wind" that's about a man’s allure to a woman strictly to get inside their most sacred sanctuary feels like something Prince would do. “Pussy is so undefeated.” Kendrick sounds rather natural on this but it’s also not as grabbing as I would have hoped for. SZA’s attitude is on Badu telling her ex-bae to call Tyrone. Sexy SZA is always interesting, she’s sensual without it feeling overly sexual. An interesting song, one I will revisit, but I'm not in love with it enough to commit to a union. I do like their chemistry on this much more than "Babylon." A woman’s voice. Not a voice I recognize.
4. "Drew Barrymore"
I love how sullen this instrumental sounds, it’s preparing you for an emotional breakdown. I love the imagery of “Drew Barrymore,” this is the SZA that I love. Narcos reference, illustrating the party, and the hook, such a confrontational question for someone you’re standing before. The second verse is home to some of my favorite SZA lyrics. Hearing her talk about forgetting her worth and needing therapy because of loneliness is so harrowing. If Sampha crushes the soul with his voice, it’s SZA’s words that will cause you to second guess compassion, love, and self-worth. I really like her vocals on this one. A bit rugged and raw, she puts so much feeling behind these words. “Drew Barrymore” is like watching the most melodramatic Lifetime movie as the wine drinking main protagonist cries herself to sleep. Love the strings at the end, strings are meant to rub against the soul. Great song.
SZA is taking us to prom. Oh, these synths. The song is feeling very pop, 70’s pop. I love the warmth and tempo, like standing in a room covered in ultraviolet lime green and bright pink. SZA’s vocal approach has changed up. This is far more straightforward singing, it's charming. She’s letting a bit more range show, a bit more power. Far different than what I’m used to from her. The amount of range she is showing is exactly what I wanted. I don’t think I’ve heard a single reference made to prom but I would slow dance under a disco ball while this plays in the background. I have to revisit this one to really get a grasp on the message but I hate how short it is. She’s singing up until the beat completely fades out. I feel like she would've continued singing until blue in the cheeks. Will revisit.
6. "The Weekend"
Very spacey and atmospheric. Slow build up. Pleasant, sunny with a cloudy synths kind of vibe. Beat just dropped, this is a gorgeous instrumental. Loving the keys, gentle yet full of life. The drums are also full. This beat is rather dapper, a debonair R&B foundation. I can imagine a futuristic TLC or Destiny’s Child pouring out their young hearts over this sonic backdrop. WOW. Okay, some very traditional R&B singing from SZA. She’s channeling the ancestors of the begotten ‘90s. If every girl sounded this pleasant scolding a man we would argue every day for an eternity. WAIT!? Is this a song dedicated to being a weekend side check. What a hook, oh this is going to be big at shows. Wait. Is this a sample? It gives me the itch of a sample that I should know. Such a soulful song. A song about being the girl on the side shouldn’t sound this soul moving. This is an early favorite, by far the best vocal performance on the album. Being the girl on the side has never sounded this good before. Weekend lovers now have an anthem. What is that sample!? Oh, just when you think the song is over some heavy drums come in, SZA is saying something that I can’t quite make out. What a strange turn of events. Bright ideas?
7. "Go Gina"
Ctrl is so well produced, I can loop these drums for an eternity and be in a state of eternal peace. I’m hoping this is a reference to Martin. So far no Martin reference. I like how SZA songs tend to sound like she’s singing not to the listener but some unnamed person. Not that she has a target on a hit list, but a person she's speaking directly to in each song. “Much to cool for 7th grade,” another reference to Pepper Ann. Gotta love a ‘90s girl. A song about freedom? Conceptually, the album is pretty spread out. Despite the minor vocal interludes, I’m not following an ongoing theme. Production wise, I’m loving "Go Gina." Overall, the album has been one smooth ride. Not in love with this one, though. Another cinematic closing.
8. "Garden (Say It Like Dat)"
A seamless transition. “Need you for the old me, need you for my sanity,” songwriter SZA is already grabbing my attention. I'm loving the beginning, the subtle trap elements in the production mixed with the vocals are a winning combination. Curry and Durant level. The song does feel rather repetitive as far as subject matter goes, though. Different foundation but essentially another song about trying to prove her worth to a man. Nevermind. I spoke too soon about the song's topic. After hearing the hook and the start of this second verse, it’s far more about her insecurities. It’s the turmoil of not feeling adequate, not feeling enough for your significant other. The production sounds like a sea of mermaids rising to the surface in perfect sequence. It’s that pleasant to the ears. The kind of mid-tempo layered record that gives you all the bells and whistles to keep it from following into the same corner of cliche sounds. Another skit at the end. Ha, if this is SZA’s grandmother she sounds so strong and wise. Kudos to her and her life advice. There was a moment of skepticism but I end up loving this one.
9. "Broken Clocks"
Oh shit! Whoever produced this sampled River Tiber’s “West.” I've had that song in constant rotation over the last few months. Cool little loop. Another slow build up. Some claps. A little bounce. SZA refuses to go back to the SoundCloud. “I had a thing for dirty shoes,” I feel this on a spiritual level. Sounds like she was born to sing over this loop. We need SZA over more soul beats for the next album. Is she channeling her inner Magic City stripper? The intimate moments that feel like you shouldn’t be overhearing is SZA's aesthetic. The feeling of overhearing a couple truly in a heated moment who are lost in their emotions. That's SZA. Lost in all the feelings that exist in the moment. A rather simple hook, but it works. Sing it SZA! A nice number. Not favorite-worthy but I’ll play it throughout the year. May all the strippers feel represented.
This bass is NASTY. So nasty. Is this Pharrell? It kind of has a Neptune-esque kind of vibe. It’s definitely an otherworldly style of production. By far the most left-field song since “Prom.” Swaying to this one. It’s a bit weird but in a daring experimental kind of way. I really like the vocals. Especially those first few high notes. It just feels like the song has no gravity; like we're floating. I don't know if that sounds weird but this song was not recorded on earth. Oh man, the breakdown at the end is HEAVY. I feel like there’s a horde of juggernauts marching in the studio. It just woke me up! I think the answer is yes SZA, there's no way anyone can ignore you being alive when you have a thousand Timbs doing the Eastside stomp in our headphones. Not 100% sure about this one. But I enjoyed the curve ball.
11. "Wavy (Interlude)" (ft. James Fauntleroy)
I've been anticipating SZA and Fauntleroy. I’m loving this tempo, the subtle energetic vibe that you feel once awaking from a midday nap. Bouncy. SZA has a nice little flow on this one. An interesting call and response between SZA and James. I’m already crying about it being too short. Please don’t end already. This is arguably one of those rare moments when the interlude has the potential to be a single. Someone put the crying Jordan on the tracklisting. Rewind, rewind, rewind!
12. "Normal Girl"
I've been waiting for a moment to completely blow my socks off, cause me to slap my mother, and apologize to a woman I didn’t date. Sounds like an organ being played. Another slow builder. Hopefully, it has an amazing drop. Drums are nice, nice amount of boom and bap. Okay SZA! I'm hearing a lot of life coming from the golden lungs. Another self-reflective record, but I like the concept. She's really exploring what it means to be normal. Security in self is such an interesting topic on this album. It's who SZA is versus who she wishes to be. Wanting to be a normal girl but also admitting she’ll never be that. These are the songs I like from SZA, because she has an impressive level of self awareness. There's a nod to Drake's "Controlla" that's randomly placed but now I want to hear a SZA cover of "Controlla." Everything she says always sounds genuine and pure. OH! This breakdown at the end is heaven in a Dairy Queen.
13. "Pretty Little Birds" (ft. Isaiah Rashad)
SZA and Zay back together again! Their collaboration catalog is flawless. Give me a Zay and SZA album over Jay Z and Beyonce any day. Okay, this sounds a bit unlike their past efforts together. I like how off kilter the production sounds, it feels like if you tilted a globe and it threw the planet off balance. A few interesting production chocies on the latter half of this project. Loving the horns. Imagery galore. I'm loving all the colors “Pretty Little Birds” is being painted with; SZA is making sure to cover the entire canvas. Those horns! I can't get enough of them. Zay’s rough rasp is an odd but enjoyable contrast to SZA’s cotton candy sweetness. Rashad sounds like he just woke up. Duet style. These two are the definition of opposites attracting. SZA and Zay are like putting a double scoop of vanilla and chocolate in the same bowl and eating a spoonful―satisfying every single time.
14. "20 Something"
Acoustic guitar intro for the outro. Liking Acoustic SZA. She sounds comfortable, soulful, and she’s belting out her inner truth. If Khalid is singing for the teens, SZA is here for us 20 somethings. Vocal olympics, she’s showing off her whole soul behind these notes. This is close your eyes and sing in the shower music. This song will resonate with anyone who is a ways away from 21 but not yet at 30, right in the dirty, confusing, and thrilling middle. Another voice interlude at the end, she tells her mom it was beautiful and the two end the album laughing together.
Have you ever felt restless after finishing an album? You know, the feeling of wanting to go back to discover what resides underneath all the rocks that you failed to un-turn the first time. There’s a lot hidden under the layers of Ctrl, too much to overturn in a 1-Listen formatted review. Each song sounds like a world that's within itself, a piece of SZA. I’m still uncertain if there’s a bigger theme attached to the music or the vocal interludes including her mother and grandmother.
While I haven’t decided if the album is home to SZA’s best songwriting, it does house some of her best vocal performances. It’s a bar raising listening experience for anyone who is aware of the material she has released in the past. You can tell there’s confidence, a daring spirit to push personal limitation. Despite being signed to a major, the album feels so SZA―I don’t doubt this is the project she wanted to make. I’m not sure how I feel about the mini transitions at the end of a majority of the songs, though. I feel that’s where the album gets messy. But the heart of the album, its themes and the writing of those themes is what grabs the ear and soul.
Ctrl is a coming of age story told by a woman raised in the era of smartphones and Sex In The City. She knows of love and heartbreak, false affection and meaningless flings; fighting insecurities while fighting to find some kind of security in this burning world of ours. The album explores these emotions in a context that’s so raw and pure it reminded me of watching last season of Issa Rae’s Insecure―the way it puts you in the heart of such real and relatable situations. SZA never feels fake, even if the situations aren’t based on her real life she says all the right words to make the lyrics become a mirror to see yourself or someone you know in them.
Ctrl isn't without flaws, but it isn't weighed down by any one shortcoming. It's far too layered for a general synopsis but after a 1-Listen I'm certain this album is a reflection of the times by a woman of this era. An album for the present from a songstress with a bright future.