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REVIEW: SZA – ‘Ctrl’ (Top Dawg / RCA)

SZA is the only female member of hip-hop label Top Dawg Entertainment. Much like Frank Ocean in Odd Future, her presence is moderated by being the ‘singer’ on the label, providing vocals and features for the rappers, as well as affirming her talents in solo-projects. In Z, the 2014 EP, SZA explores themes of unrequited love, isolation, and a longing for acceptance. This all takes place on the instrumental backdrop of producers Felix Snow and Mac Miller. SZA successfully packaged herself as TDE’s sombre soulful songstress.

Ctrl is a progression from these themes, SZA lyrically discusses her new-found control of her self-perception and behaviour. As a young adult escaping from sexual exploits, one-sided intimacy and emotional manipulation, SZA invites the audience into an internal monologue that discusses a full-fledged understanding of ones worth and intimacy, as well as urging the listener to join her in becoming a brighter self-celebratory version of herself. Ctrl sonically, is a fusion between neo-soul, electronic and hints of indie rock, neatly infused with an appreciation of ‘90s pop culture and sound.

The opening track, ‘Supermodel’ starts with an introduction by SZA’s mother, filtered under the buzz of a telephone line, this is a recurring feature in all TDE albums, used by the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Isaiah Rashad. Instrumentally the song begins with acoustic strumming and a flurry of vocal runs, the song then reaches its peak towards the 2:30 mark, when drums are introduced into the composition, displaying SZA’s flair for jazz influence.

The lead single ‘Drew Barrymore’ characterises SZA’s metamorphosis into a phase of understanding. She sings “’cause it’s hard enough you got to treat me like this / lonely enough to let you treat me”, she recognises her struggles with self-worth, but is still able to identify the toxic behaviours of her partner. Entitling the track ‘Drew Barrymore’, a symbol of teenage angst and confusion, creates a bridge of understanding. The teenage principle that one has to face mistreatment for popularity or experience, that we see in many Drew Barrymore films, is omniscient is this song.

‘Doves In The Wind’ questions the futility of men in their quest for sex or an ode to pussy. SZA takes on a skeletal staccato delivery on a kick drum led instrumental, which may lead some to compare it to Rihanna’s ‘Consideration’, the song is more comparable to TDE’s stripped back West Coast influence, creating a smooth backdrop for Kendrick’s rap verse. The general take-away from this song is worth should not be determined by how sexually appealing an individual is, using the analogy of Forrest Gump, SZA argues “Y’know, Jenny almost gave it all up for him / Never even pushed for the pussy / Where’s Forrest now when you need him?” Or as Kendrick puts it [men will] “lose they mind for it / Wine for it, dine for it / Spend time for it, see no colored line for it / Double back handicap and go blind for it”, so why should a woman limit themselves to just their pussy?

Lyrical themes of control also take place on ‘The Weekend’, a trap-infused R&B anthem of the sidechick or a modern day take on Naughty by Nature’s ‘O.P.P.’.The song takes on an acceptance of lack on control, from the part a woman romantically involved with a man that has a partner. SZA playfully sings “Make him lose his mind every weekend/You take Wednesday, Thursday/Then just send him my way/Think I got it covered for the weekend”

In ‘Love Galore’, Travis Scott’s stylistic influences take the forefront to accommodate his highly synthesised, autotuned vocals and ad-libs, resulting in the song sounding like an additional track from his 2016 album, Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight. SZAs naturalistic vocals somewhat dilute her presence on this track.

Much like her female old school R&B predecessors, SZA vents to her audience about her qualms with romance and self-esteem. The underlying concept of the album, however, is an acceptance of lack of control and unpredictability. SZA is introverted, messy and misplaced but is completely unapologetic – as she says in ‘Go Gina’ “I belong to nobody / It works for me” a simple statement, no “but”. (8/10) (Benita Barden)

Listen to Ctrl here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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