Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) owns a rap empire at this point. Based out of LA, the label boasts a roster that includes Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Isaiah Rashad, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock. But then there’s SZA. The pen name of Solána Imani Rowe, SZA is TDE’s only claim to diversity; the only female artist on TDE is also its only notable artist who you couldn’t definitively call a “rapper.” In fact, SZA’s music defies most musical descriptors. There’s the trippiness of psych rock, the warmth of old school R&B, the kinks of modern EDM and the punch of trap. But it’s all so well blended that it would be unfair to pin SZA’s music as any one of these. That sound has made her a prized collaborator; she’s featured for nearly all of her more famous label mates, and she wrote the opener for Rihanna’s “ANTi.” But with no solo work since 2014, SZA has caused more conversations than her body of work would warrant.
SZA has been between the spotlight and the shadows for too long. Her mixtapes “S” and “Z,” as beautiful as they were obscure, embodied that space. The tapes displayed SZA’s ability to push the boundaries of genre, but sometimes the sonic experimentation meant casting a shadow over SZA’s personality, as well as her voice. She long hinted at the release of “A,” the completion of a trilogy (“S,” “Z,” “A”). But with the passage of time, as well as a frustrated tweet from SZA herself suggesting her premature retirement, it seemed unlikely that “A” would ever come.
But SZA didn’t retire, and we should all be thankful. We still don’t know about “A,” but last June, SZA made a triumphant return with her debut album, “Ctrl”. The album sees SZA shedding the murkiness of her early tapes, sharpening her sound but retaining its quirky nature.
The dissonant opener, “Supermodel,” sees SZA emerging from the shadows of her early records, ditching vocal effects and stripping back production to free up space for herself. The track sees SZA strutting from line to line and from bitterness to vulnerability: “you know you wrong for shit like that / I could be your supermodel if you believe, if you see it in me.” It’s a kind of effortless confidence that will undoubtedly gain SZA comparisons to the Knowles sisters. But the sound is more Björk than Beyoncé here: a lone, gritty guitar, a frantic drum set and little else form this skeletal track. Though many will classify “Ctrl” as R&B, it is clear from the beginning that SZA has much more to work with in her repertoire.
The same is clear on “Drew Barrymore,” a droopy rock ballad that finds SZA emptying her insecurities with aching honesty: “you came with your new friends / and mom jeans and her new vans / and she’s perfect and I hate it / oh so glad you made it.” SZA sounds most at home on “Ctrl” where she channels endearing characters like Barrymore, celebrating her oddities even when that means accepting loneliness. The same can be said of “Go Gina,” where SZA takes a cue from the “Martin” character to dance in the face of the bullshit.
And that’s good, because SZA’s dealing with a lot of bullshit here. Whether a past love keeps texting her (“Love Galore”) or she’s getting straight up played (“The Weekend”), SZA is as quick to point out her own flaws as she is to call out others. Like she laments on “The Weekend:” “How you want me when you want a girl? / This feeling is reckless, of knowing it’s selfish, and knowing I’m desperate.”
There’s a timely poignance to lines like these. With “Ctrl,” SZA details the struggles of modern love as well as, or better than, many pop artists have this year, such as Khalid, Lorde et al. But what makes “Ctrl” unique is SZA’s brutally honest approach to these struggles, whether crying over an ex, or flicking him off. Lines like “Honesty hurts when you’re gettin’ older / I gotta say I’ll miss the way you need me,” are just as powerful as “Let me tell you a secret / I been secretly banging your homeboy.”
In a way, that’s what’s important about “Ctrl:” SZA is dealing with many of the same complicated problems that artists have discussed this year, but she’s not necessarily looking for your, or anyone else’s, approval. The result is an album that feels uniquely free of limitations. It’s not the album we waited for, or expected, from SZA, but “Ctrl” is much better for it.