Words About Music
St. Louis vocalist Solana Rowe’s debut album has been a long time coming. She’s been the only female artist on Top Dawg Entertainment’s roster for years now, and her oft-delayed “Ctrl” album has finally seen the light of day. While I have previously been unimpressed with SZA’s music, I reserved final judgment for the debut album, a 49-minute foray into R&B and pop that is far brighter and more captivating than I was expecting. This record features the likes of Travis Scott, Pharrell, Kendrick Lamar, and Isaiah Rashad, and it’s got a lot going for it.
Like many contemporary hip-hop and R&B records, “Ctrl” kicks off with a voice message from a close family member, specifically SZA’s aunt. Then a soft guitar guides us gently into “Supermodel,” a beautiful, bitter song about insecurity. SZA sings about getting back at an ex by engaging in a sexual relationship with his friend. I absolutely love her vocals on this track, as well as the instrumentation, which builds past the guitar to hit us with some snappy bass and jazzy drums. It’s an excellent start to the album that immediately catches my attention.
Travis Scott brings his psychedelic trap flavors to “Love Galore,” which has some more minimal production elements to it. Again, SZA comes through with an extremely solid melody and more bitter lyrics that tackle shitty relationship problems. Travis does his thing on the track, and the track ends on a hypnotic outro. This is an excellently executed pop song that sort of reminds me of Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.” with its layered production and climactic hook.
Speaking of King Kendrick, he pops up on the very next song, “Doves In The Wind,” which is about the greedy, awful things people do for sex. SZA comes through with some of her harshest lines on this track, like “I know what you really ’bout/High key, your dick is weak, buddy/It’s only replaced by a rubber substitute/We ain’t feelin’ you.” This track is a vaginal celebration rather than vaginal degradation, and it’s all delivered over more cogent, distinct production. Not only did SZA step her game up vocally and lyrically, but she also ensured that her album’s sound was unique and current.
She gets personal on “Drew Barrymore,” a song so inspired by the geeky-yet-hot character the titular actress has played so many times that, well, it’s fuckin’ named after her. Don’t mistake this for a song which carries a lot of humor, though, as SZA is really going in on her insecurities, apologizing for not being able to be everything her partner wants her to be. She wants to please and impress, lamenting that she perhaps might need some therapy. It’s a sad, yearning track, and the string embellishments toward the end really bring it to the next level. At this point, SZA has really impressed me and reeled me into her world.
The song “Prom” also kicks off promisingly, with the 808 drum machine and soft synths. It scratches this itch for autotuned, R&B-esque synthpop that Kanye first pioneered on “808s and Heartbreak.” This track also entertains SZA’s internal self-doubt, and it’s one of the most emotionally potent tracks on the album. It’s a catchy, multi-faceted track that works as one of the album’s best ballads. This is a sound that I wish was achieved with this level of success more frequently.
The smooth slow-jam “The Weekend” is another highlight, with SZA cleverly singing about being someone’s side-piece. “You’re like 9 to 5, I’m the weekend,” she sings, “Make him lose his mind every weekend/You take Wednesday, Thursday/Then just send him my way.” It sounds like the female perspective on a song by The Weeknd, which is apt, but this track’s electro-R&B sound doesn’t necessarily provoke Abel’s particular style. The track ends on this weird interlude/outro thing, with SZA singing “Bright ideas, we got bright ideas” atop some howling harmonies.
I also enjoy the song “Go Gina,” which has a fantastic, hip-hop-esque beat to it. Its chorus references Martin Lawrence’s eponymous sitcom and its catchphrase, using his onscreen romantic partner as a symbol of someone who is seen as uptight and incapable of fun finally getting the opportunity to let loose. I think the track ends a bit abruptly, but before you even realize it’s over, we’re hit with more great music in the form of “Garden (Say It Like Dat).”
I like this particular track for its concept, with SZA singing about being accepted for who she is and what she looks like by the person she’s with. It’s not the album’s most forward-thinking track, and I think it’d fit right in with SZA’s older material, but by this point I’m so completely sold on what she’s bringing to the table that I’m willing to see that this album’s flaws are outshined by its bright spots. I am beginning to get the sense that this album is pretty front-loaded though, as my two least favorite songs so far are the most recent two.
I don’t exactly think that “Broken Clocks” picks up the pace in terms of achieving similar quality as the first several songs brought, but it’s by no means an offensively bad song. At worst, it’s somewhat forgettable, and it has me hoping that SZA finds better ways of singing about the topics she addresses. I would like to shout out The Antydote, though, for their production on the next track, “Anything,” which is one of the second half’s best moments. Unfortunately, it feels sort-of like an interlude, and the fact that it’s followed up by an actual interlude doesn’t work to reinforce the rest of this album’s back half.
“Wavy,” the aforementioned interlude, makes for one of the album’s weirdest moments, because it could have been developed into a full-fledge song instead of a 76-second interlude. I love James Fauntleroy’s vocals on the track, and it could’ve been so much more. Instead, it just sounds like an unfinished song they didn’t know what to do with, so they just called it an interlude and called it good.
“Normal Girl” is a pretty good song, even if I’m not super into the concept of just wishing to be, clearly, a normal girl. She wants to be the type of girl you can take home to your mom and make your dad proud, and she laments that she feels like she’s only admired for her looks by the men she’s with. I like that she interpolates Drake’s “Controlla” and flips it in this track. And I must also commend the way she sort of flips the normal girl trope by the end of the song, too, by arguing against it in the first place. What is a “normal girl” anyway? She decides that she, in fact, is a normal girl, and that anyone who ever doubted her normalcy in the first place can piss off, living in regret that they let her go in the first place.
I think the penultimate track, “Pretty Little Birds,” is a bit too typical for its own good. I do like the touches of horn that pop up here and there, but topically and lyrically it’s not the best piece of music SZA puts together on this record. Isaiah Rashad puts together a decent verse, but overall this track feels a bit clunky, like some chemistry that wasn’t fully realized, or an unfinished math equation.
The closing track really ties things together. “20 Something” begins with just SZA and a lightly strummed guitar, as she sings about how neither she nor anyone else in their 20s has their shit together. I like the simple, laid back nature of this song, and its tributary nature to the age of not having one’s shit together. One more sampled message from a family member, and that is the end of “Ctrl.”
What we have presented to us is an album that, while a bit messy and somewhat unfinished, still gives me great hope for SZA’s musical future. Sure, it’s first half outshines its mixed second half by quite a decent measure, but my overall opinion of this album is that it is pretty great. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy a SZA album this year, and while I don’t love the whole thing, I find a lot about this album that is worth loving and paying attention to. I think once she fully leaves behind the dated alt-R&B sound she still clings to at certain points on this album and embraces a liver, more in-the-moment feel, she’ll hit us with her true masterpiece. “Ctrl” is close, but not quite there.
SCORE — 7.75 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — Supermodel, Love Galore, Doves In The Wind, Drew Barrymore, Prom, The Weekend, Anything, Wavy (Interlude), Normal Girl, 20 Something