'Ctrl' is thematically repetitive but sonically strong
SZA’s sophomore album Ctrl shows off her range as an artist and perhaps even surpasses the existing expectations the hip-hop/R&B community had for the album. Singles "Love Galore," featuring Travis Scott, and “Drew Barrymore” did not prepare audiences for the percussion and guitar filled ambience this album provides. From start to finish, the central theme of Ctrl is sex and love. Questions about their compliance with one another and their differences are brought up by SZA. The age old question of what love is and how to define it seems to be on the forefront of her mind constantly, and understandably, for it is a complicated question with often complicated answers that almost everyone can relate to.
The album’s opening track “Supermodel” starts with a voice recording of SZA’s mother who says, “That is my greatest fear / That if, if I lost control / Or did not have control, things would just, you know / I would be… fatal.” Followed by a mix of various guitar riffs and SZA’s intoxicating voice, she speaks on her own insecurities in relationships, including her fear of these insecurities causing her lover to leave her. In the middle of the hook she states “Why I can’t just stay lone by myself? / Wish I was comfortable just with myself.” She sees that her relationships often lead to self-destruction, but she can’t help and fall into them because being alone is worse.
The second track “Love Galore” was already heavily in my rotation weeks before the album dropped. Travis Scott and SZA complement each other very well, particularly during SZA’s first verse where Travis ad-libs between SZA’s bars. Travis’s iconic “Yeah” flows between her lyrics “skrrt skrrt on n****s’ / skirt up on n****s / Skirt down, you actin' like me / actin' like we / wasn’t more than a summer fling.” If not for my already abusive listening habits of this song, it would probably be my favorite of the entire album; however, I admit my biased nature as a stan of “La Flame.” Though he does have a classically cringe-worthy lyric during his verse when he says “Let me cum inside ya / Let me plant that seed inside ya.” Direct? Yes. Romantic? Debatable.
“Doves in the Wind” features Kendrick (Kung Fu Kenny now), and the fellow Top Dawg Entertainment artist continues to give us new verses of his developed style. This song is the most direct on the record when it comes to the subject of sex. Kendrick tells us all the things people will do for “pussy,” which he yells in several different tones between bars. In total Kendrick says “pussy” 16 times during his verse (yes, I counted.) SZA herself uses the word several times as well. This is a good thing though. If J. Cole can rap about people “Getting off his dick” then SZA should be able to sing about her own genitalia. You don’t destigmatize a word without using it, and SZA puts the most prominent feature of the album on the song that calls attention to the word.
“Drew Barrymore,” the second single off the record, was also in my rotation before Ctrl dropped. SZA runs us through a typical day with her group of friends. She has a love interest in her social circle with whom she seems to have a back and forth type relationship with. This love interest also has eyes for another woman with “her new mom jeans and her new vans / And she’s perfect and I hate it, oh so glad you made it.”
“Broken Clocks” is a standout on the album sonically. It sounds a lot like a song that would be on Rihanna’s Anti, as SZA herself was featured on “Consideration,” the opening track of Anti. Yet by now the album’s themes of sex and love are starting to run dry. These are both very powerful topics, but when overused it becomes repetitive for the listener. The switch up of the production on each song is what kept me intrigued throughout the rest of the album.
The song “Wavy (Interlude)” begins with a mellow synth, and the first few seconds made me check my phone to make sure I wasn’t listening to “Biebs in the Trap” by Travis. No coincidence that a song titled Wavy reminds me of one of the central figures of the “Wave” movement. The minute-long interlude features James Fauntleroy, and both of their beautiful voices play well off of each other.
In “Normal Girl,” SZA continues meditating on her insecurities. She’s afraid that she’ll never be a normal girl and asks how she can become one. She believes that her parents aren’t proud of her, that she isn't the type her man would take to visit his parents, or the type of girl that her lover would brag to his friends about. “Pretty Little Birds” has percussion take a back seat, using fluttering synths and interrupting horns in the forefront of the production. The song features Isaiah Rashad, another fellow TDE artist, who himself is on the rise. Two different recordings of Isaiah’s voice singing the same lyrics are played in tandem, creating a dream-like atmosphere. SZA and Isaiah’s heavily reverbed voices then meet each other in harmony before the outerlude leads to “20 Something.”
SZA predictably talks about love on the final song of her record, "20 Something," but she also touches on the fear of losing her youth. She sees that her twentysomethings are most likely the prime of her life, and she hopes that the joy from her youth will carry into her older years. At the very end of the song, SZA’s mom once again speaks on the album, “And if it’s an illusion I don’t want to wake up. I’m gonna hang on to it. Because the alternative is an abyss, is just a hole, a darkness, a nothingness. Who wants that? You know? So that’s what I think about control, and that’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.” SZA responds in closing with “That was beautiful mommy, that was perfect.” Quite an existential way to end an album. SZA says through her mom that, although all of this pain can be caused through love and this love can even be an “illusion,” it’s worth it because the alternative is much worse. Overall, Ctrl surpassed my expectations; it was accessible for any R&B fan, but had enough differences between tracks to make it feel unique. The obsession on the themes of love and sex run dry after a while, but the uniqueness of the songs and the transition into a more mellow tone as the album progresses overrides this repetition. If anything, this album proved that SZA has a lot of potential that she is still sleeping on. With enough memorable tracks and an appropriate release date during early summer, I’ll be listening to this album for a while.
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