SZA’s mainstream debut is a cohesive, vibrant, and affecting experience from perhaps the most candid voice in R&B today
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‘CTRL’ is an album about expectations. Its center of attention spends her time and energy cogitating on intrapersonal, interpersonal, and societal expectations. The project arouses expectations about itself simply by being available, with SZA delivering her first full album after three years of false starts and public clashes with her own label, TDE, home of current and budding superstars such as Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q. The result of such frustration and persistence hovering over the singer and her fans is fortunately a project that doesn’t feel like it’s been given up on in any sense. SZA’s mainstream debut is a cohesive, vibrant, and affecting experience from perhaps the most candid voice in R&B today.

Now standing in a wider spotlight, SZA overturns any anticipation of familiarity by ditching the filter in both her production and her writing. The distorted bass lines, hazy and blanketed vocals, and overall dissonance of the ‘Z’ EP are mostly absent, replaced by an environment that’s stripped down and brighter. The album opens and closes with unadorned guitars, bookends to a group of songs that leaves SZA’s unique inflections and natural tenderness nowhere to hide. ‘Go Gina’ is bathed in rays of warmth as a distinct and cheerful ringing keeps the beat. The brief ‘Anything’ begins with a red herring of abrasiveness, only to throw it under a repetition of SZA’s electric stutters and a sparkling sample courtesy of producer Scum, who handles production on more than half of the album. The beats know exactly when to pop and when to hold back, offering relaxation or propulsion when a moment calls for either, melding with SZA while guaranteeing she stays the star.

Favoring personality over ambiguity ensures a ‘CTRL’-era SZA song never feels like it was written by anyone other than her. “Let me tell you a secret,” she says sweetly before jumping into a confession about an affair with a lover’s friend, which she bluntly describes as “banging your homeboy.” This all takes place in the album’s first minute. It establishes an intimate understanding between performer and audience not felt since ‘Blonde’, another work that gazes into the self but represents a grander purpose. We become privy to a SZA who is no longer buried and asking us to labor through layers, the insight being that the person who bares it all for the show is as complex as any lyrical device could make her. “You are now watching my/Mad TV,” she declares on ‘Doves in the Wind’, a song of sexual reclaim in an album littered with artfully risqué gestures.

SZA oscillates between confidence and doubt, her sense of control leaning on examples of romance, body image, and femininity. She’ll reassure herself that the object of her desire isn’t a brittle fantasy, yet lines later admit to hiding parts of her own self on ‘Garden (Say It Like Dat)’. She fears she can’t provide the total package her significant other craves, creating volatile situations like the rut of shady but exciting rendezvous presented on ‘The Weekend’. Phone conversations with the women in her life lead to a second half mined from wisdom and steadfastness, not one positioned in pop culture frameworks; ’20 Something’ and ‘Normal Girl’ achieve triumph in their tragic honesty after the appeals of ‘Drew Barrymore’ and the fleeing-to-Oz ‘Prom’ lay the groundwork. The label of “normal” is flipped from “the type of girl you want to take home right up to mama” to the girl who’s secure in all her quirks. Allusion in any sense is illusion, a discovery that SZA accepts and doesn’t eliminate, but uses to find compromises in her self-worth and love life.

The meteoric impact of SZA on ‘CTRL’ makes the features, all men, superfluous. Travis Scott is the one exception, a fresh and genuine contribution to the push-and-pull of infectious ‘Love Galore’. We’ve heard Kendrick Lamar wax philosophical about genitalia in braver ways (see: ‘For Free?’ off ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’), and while Isaiah Rashad and SZA’s harmonies are stunning on ‘Pretty Little Birds’, it isn’t the first time the two have sung about wing metaphors (see: ‘Warm Winds’ on ‘Z’). While these guests aren’t strangers to SZA’s music, on ‘CTRL’ they appear more as concessions for a grand debut. This impression extends to instances such as ‘Wavy (Interlude)’ and ‘Prom’, pleasant and thoughtful enough tunes eclipsed by more developed and individual excursions into the conventional palate such as ‘Drew Barrymore’, ‘Broken Clocks’, and ‘Love Galore’.

SZA altered her direction in front of a world waiting on her words by discarding the guarded metaphors to evoke and examine darker realities, and ‘CTRL’ is all the better for it. It is a product that sets a new standard, raising the bar for herself and for other artists young and old.

‘CTRL’ is available in stores and on streaming platforms through Top Dawg Entertainment, under exclusive license to RCA Records.