Album review throwback: storytelling with self-deprecation and self-care


5/5 *****

In honor of Black History Month, I will be reviewing multiple influential albums by Black artists. “Ctrl,” the innovative R&B debut by Solána Imani Rowe under the alias SZA, was released on June 9, 2017 by Top Dawg Entertainment. 

SZA’s appeal cannot be understated. She recently has been in the media for the release of her sophomore album, “SOS,” a sprawling and fantastic work of minimalistic R&B. It was well worth the five-year wait: fans and critics alike have praised the album for its relatability (“Good Days”) and mordancy (“Shirt”). She even has a sold-out tour on the horizon, further illuminating her impact. 

However, SZA began with an equally adventurous, daring and bold project: “Ctrl.” She did not boast the massive fanbase she currently has back in 2017. Without an album — only having several mixtapes to her name — she needed to assert herself, make her mark, innovate. While she had many A-tier features up until then, from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, she knew she had to hold her own. 

“Supermodel” smartly opens “Ctrl” for that reason. According to SZA, this song is a freestyle recounting a recent situationship. She comes for the throat of whoever she addresses: instead of shrugging off this past lover with nonchalance, she hilariously attacks him while simultaneously being self-deprecating. The lyric “Let me tell you a secret / I been secretly banging your homeboy” encapsulates the absolute unabashed nature SZA sets out to achieve not only on this track, but the rest of the album. 

Album cover art for “Ctrl” by SZA, Los Angeles, CA, US, June 9, 2017. Photo from Wikipedia.

Upon release, even critics were initially skeptical of the record for her unorthodox vocals, lyrics and taste for instrumentals. It was a hard pill to swallow for many. But because of this sheer individualism — without an ounce of fear in her delivery — “Ctrl” soon gained a cult level of acclaim.  

“Love Galore” with Travis Scott and “Doves in the Wind” with Kendrick Lamar showcase a more commercial side of SZA without a compromise of her artistry — an intoxicating blend. The latter, with Lamar, oozes with a lustful composure, featuring some of my favorite lyrical content on the record. It feels wrong to print it in ink because of how explicit it is; you’ll have to listen for yourself. 

On the next track, “Drew Barrymore,” SZA alternates between subtle wordplay and, again, self-deprecation: “Am I warm enough for you … / Woman enough for you.”  “Prom” features a standout vocal performance and a lovely vintage instrumental, a danceable and flirty fan favorite. “The Weekend,” one of the album’s biggest hits, compares her current situationship with a nine-to-five job, only having this partner “for the weekend.” 

Clearly, SZA shows a breadth unmatched on many other artists’ debut albums. She has already asserted herself as a vocalist, lyricist and musician, setting the scenes for the stories she wants to tell perfectly. “Go Gina,” one of my favorite tracks from “Ctrl,” fires on all of these cylinders. I am repeatedly enticed by the warm and unfiltered ambience this track gives. It’s fun, groovy and uplifting, demonstrating why SZA is a talent to truly behold. 

The consistency continues onto “Garden (Say It Like Dat)” and “Broken Clocks” — two more of her hits and, arguably, her most influential tracks. The sonic palettes on these songs have influenced other contemporary R&B titans, such as The Weeknd on his most recent releases. With a vintage twinge, confessional vocals and focus on self-care, SZA collectivized a new shade of R&B, one handily explored in the past few years. 

“Ctrl” concludes as strong as it opens. “Anything” and “Normal Girl” both boast great hooks, touching into the pop realm — again, without compromising SZA’s vision. “Pretty Little Birds” is a titanic masterwork featuring Isaiah Rashad — another demonstration of instrumental and lyrical synchronicity. The intimate but anthemic “20 Something” finishes the record, showing SZA scared of growing up without an understanding of her own place. 

It’s an apt closer, however. Throughout the record, her grandmother has narrated interludes bookending or beginning some of the tracks. At the end of “20 Something,” she states, “And if [control]’s an illusion, I don’t want to wake up … Because the alternative is an abyss.” SZA tells her “that’s beautiful” — much like the rest of “Ctrl” — and just like that, it’s over. 

“Ctrl” is a beautiful and influential debut work. I implore you to listen to it and track its influences for yourself.