As a twenty-something woman who’s been single in the age of social media, SZA’s confessional debut album CTRL is strikingly relatable. But what’s remarkable about it is that she has spun her personal experiences into a soulful, touching R&B record with broad appeal beyond her particular demographic—case in point, rap mogul Diddy posted nearly two minutes of himself vibing to it on Snapchat, declaring, “I’m obsessed.”
But for those who’ve had to navigate sex and relationships in the era of DMs and dick appointments, CTRL feels as honest and timely as Goth Shakira’s funny, feminist memes about searching for connection in a social media-saturated world. Fittingly, the name of the album is spelled like a keyboard command, but on a deeper level, CTRL speaks to the simultaneous scariness and liberation of opening ourselves up to others who are equally afraid to be hurt. “That is my greatest fear: that if I lost control, or did not have control, things would just — you know, I — would be fatal,” as SZA’s mother says at the beginning of the stripped-down opening track, “Supermodel.”
The first lady of Kendrick Lamar’s Top Dawg Entertainment, SZA acquired a cult following with her 2014 mixtape Z, a downtempo project rife with ambient beats and understated vocals — a pleasing combination for fans of artists like XXYYXX and Sky Ferreira alike. She later broke into the mainstream with her feature on “Consideration” from Rihanna’s ANTI, which showed her developing the more polished, self-confident singing style that dominates CTRL.
On CTRL, SZA trades Z’s whispery vocals for a robust timbre steeped in jazz and soul, evoking Amy Winehouse and earlier predecessors like Billie Holiday. In keeping with jazz tradition, there’s an improvisatory quality to the way she sings throughout the album, unraveling structured pop hooks with stream-of-consciousness riffs and scat-like repetition. But in contrast to the self-seriousness that often comes with impressive vocal chops, CTRL is often comically blunt: “Highkey, your dick is weak, buddy/It’s only replaced by a rubber substitute,” SZA croons on “Doves in the Wind.” It’s lines like these that make the album feel as intimate and fun as a slumber party with your best girlfriends.
Kendrick Lamar, who recently caught flak from feminists for his “show me something natural” lines from “Humble,” redeems himself with his feature on “Doves in the Wind,” where he praises the power of pussy and dismisses disrespectful dudes. His and other features on CTRL are well placed and don’t overpower SZA despite her guest artists’ greater starpower: Lamar and Travis $cott, who appears on “Love Galore,” are more like the supporting cast in SZA’s story of self actualization.
SZA recruited ten little-known producers — including multi-instrumentalist Carter Lang and Antydote and Bekon, who have both worked extensively with Kendrick Lamar — to create a genre-bending musical tapestry with elements of indie rock, R&B and hip-hop. And similarly to the way her album doesn’t fit squarely into one genre, SZA doesn’t either. She’s neither a good girl nor a vixen; instead, she happily dances in the grey area in between, laughing at frivolous fuckboys every step of the way.