Listening through Top Dawg Entertainment’s (label home of Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q and Isaiah Rashad) only female artist SZA’s debut full length, Ctrl, I’ve found myself thinking back to Frank Ocean’s masterpieces, Channel Orange and Blonde. I think this is partially because these are among the best ‘R&B’ (if you can give Blonde a genre) albums I’ve heard over the last few years, partially because the production work of both records is so outstanding, and partially because both artists mine Forrest Gump for sexual innuendo. But I think the true tying theme is the deconstruction of the complex emotions entwined with physical intimacy; power and control (from which the album takes its name), desperation, self-doubt, moral questioning and ambiguity. Ctrl is absolutely a sex album, but, in the style increasingly common in today’s nuanced R&B writing (see FKA Twigs or The Weeknd’s older stuff), it’s also an incredibly personal record about what these encounters, these physical transactions of sorts, mean to SZA and her complex relationships, and how that empowers her as a woman in 2017.
Take third-sequenced “Doves in The Wind” (one of the many highlights that grace the album’s near-perfect opening side), where SZA and Kendrick Lamar thoroughly investigate all the connotations of ‘pussy’. SZA asserts the importance of her sexuality (“You can never trivialize pussy”) and throws shade on anyone who attempts to diminish it (“Your dick is weak, buddy / It’s only replaced by a rubber substitute”), while Kendrick pitches the heterosexual male’s irrational take on the subject (“Niggas’ll lose they mind for it / Wine for it , dine for it – pussy / Pussy got endless prisoners, pussy always revengin’ her”). Both artists complement each-other in a two-sided but refreshingly female-empowered take on sex.
But then on followup “Drew Barrymore”, SZA can relax into the perfect casual sexual encounter that can exist purely for pleasure, outside of power dynamics – “I’m so glad you could come by / Somebody get the tacos, somebody spark the blunt / Let’s start the Narcos off at episode one”. This 360 evaluation of relations are part of what gives Ctrl heavy lyrical depth that also tackles depression (“We get so lonely, we pretend that this works/ I”m so ashamed of myself think I need therapy”), body image (“I know you’d rather be laid up with a big booty / You know I’m sensitive about havin’ no booty”) and aging into adulthood (“Hopin’ my 20 somethings won’t end / Hopin’ to keep the rest of my friends / Prayin’ the 20 somethings don’t kill me”).
But aside from its lyrical maturity, Ctrl‘s excellence is deeply indebted to how incredibly appealing and effortless SZA’s flow and cadence is throughout. From her reggae inspired lilt on “Doves in the Wind” to her sinusoidal rap singing on opener “Supermodel” to the Destiny’s Child-like quickfire of “Wavy”, pretty much every vocal turn on the album is a home run. She moves between singing, speak-singing and rapping with unexpected contours and emphasis on tracks (such as the Travis Scott-featuring “Love Galore”) like a surfer riding the curl of an endless wave. And the production techniques applied to the dense and many harmonies that pop up throughout every verse and chorus of the record, including falsettos, echos and left-right panning (perhaps most notably on standout “Prom”), add even more dynamics and dimensions. Through it all, however, SZA is never reaching, never shouting, constantly maintaining a cool level-headedness even on the record’s most emotional moments. This choice to stay chill aligns perfectly with the album’s uninterrupted easy-going and minimalist arrangement choices.
Production-wise, Ctrl is full of interesting bells and whistles that tend to stay true to low-energy, bass and drums based arrangements, allowing subtle touches like the woozy, underwater synths on “Drew Barrymore” or the “Hotline Bling”-esque Trop-House notes on “Love Galore”. As previously mentioned, the harmony and vocal overdub work account for many of the album’s most impressive moments, though crisp instrumentation like the snare drum that finally rolls into the final third of “Supermodel” are as satisfying as they are essential. SZA makes room for four guest features, which feels like the perfect number, and packs them in toward the beginning and ends of the record, allowing her the space to solidify an identity through the record’s middle third. Travis Scott and Kendrick both historically bat a high average on their features, but their voices here go above a good verse, syncing perfectly with SZAs relaxed but sexually-charged aesthetic. Less so, however, for the abrasive Isaiah Rashad on “Pretty Little Birds”, the album’s penultimate cut.
If I had to nitpick, I’d say the more formless, down-tempo songs at the album’s center, “Garden” and “Broken Clocks”, hem closer to a traditional, less unique sound than what preceded and follow them, and the record, while in no means too long (50 minutes and 14 tracks) probably could have afforded to and benefited from their cutting. Still, “Ctrl” succeeds lyrically and sonically, and in particular SZA’s unique vocals and singing style make it hard to go back to listening to airier or less distinctive vocalists. As for standouts, “Prom” is a catchy-as-fuck low-key banger and “Love Galore” and “Doves in the Wind” are instant classics (also a big fan of the former’s music video). I think Ctrl is by far the strongest R&B record of the year, and deserves to be seen as a shining example of the genre’s continued transformation come the end of the decade.
Score: 11 / 13