Album Review: SZA - CTRL

It seems unfair at first to compare the debut full-length from SZA (born Solana Imani Rowe) with A Seat at The Table, last year’s remarkable release from Solange Knowles, but the comparisons are inevitable.

Comparison to Knowles, and specifically, A Seat, isn’t exactly bad company to keep; and the more time you spend with Rowe’s phenomenal artistic statement CTRL, the more similarities you begin to see—both within the album itself as well as within Rowe’s mythology as a performer.

The token female signed to Top Dawg Entertainment (home of Kendrick Lamar, et. al), Rowe’s first release for the label, the EP Z, arrived in 2014, with the creation and release of CTRL becoming a long gestating and at times contentious process. The album itself was originally slated for release last year, but delayed by TDE label heads—“I actually quit,” she tweeted last year in a vent of frustration with the situation that she then deleted.

Now that it has arrived, CTRL, like A Seat at The Table, serves as what could be viewed as a proper introduction to Rowe as an artist. Following a series of self-released EPs, and Z, this full-length finds her coming into her own as a performer and a songwriter; the same way Knowles had struggled to find her own identity with two misfire “pop” releases prior to easing into her role as the forerunner for “alternative R&B.”

Both albums are incredibly intelligent and densely layered; and both are structured around snippets of dialogue that help craft a narrative that is then carried through the songs themselves. While A Seat relied on interviews with Knowles’ family and Master P (of all people), CTRL features dialogue from Rowe’s own grandmother and mother, aptly on the subject of “control.”

The album opens with “Supermodel,” a song that serves as bit of a mission statement for the album—over a dissonant electric guitar strum, Rowe unloads in a strong, near stream of consciousness fashion: “Leave me lonely for prettier women,” she sings. “I could be your supermodel if you believe. If you see it in me….I don’t see myself.”

These conceits—of womanhood and self worth—are just two of the ideas that she explores in a number of the songs on the record, like on the outstanding “Drew Barrymore,” a gigantic, catchy as hell pop song that is built around a sly and fun groove. In it, Rowe compares herself to a girl wearing mom jeans and new Vans, all while attempting to challenge the expectations that men have put on her. She follows this up with the glitchy, electro-tinged “Prom,” a song that is slightly reminiscent of Bangerz-era Miley Cyrus in its delivery and execution—only, like, a million times better.

Throughout, Rowe finds a delicate balance between the larger and weightier ideas presented on CTRL, as well as veering slightly from them into other, less challenging areas. She strays from the course early on with the surprisingly hilarious “Doves in The Wind,” featuring a guest verse from TDE marquee name Kendrick Lamar—who raps, with a straight face, that “pussy is so facetious.” The slinky, hypnotic pulses of “Go Gina” also take a slight detour away from the heavier themes; it’s just a straight up fun song.

CTRL’s finest moment, and probably one of the best songs I have heard in 2017, arrives at the halfway point. Again, comparing to A Seat at The Table, the visceral emotion that Rowe pours into the skittering, devastating “Broken Clocks” only rivals what was heard last year with Solange’s “Cranes in The Sky.” It’s not every day that I hear a song that stops me in my tracks, but that is exactly what happened the first time I hear “Broken Clocks.” You can hear the anguish, frustration, and even the desperation in her voice during the powerful refrain. It is truly a remarkable accomplishment for any artist to convey all this within the span of a pop song—let alone someone still in their mid-20s.

The humorous reprieves grow fewer and fewer as CTRL heads into its final act—“Do you even know I’m alive?” Rowe pleads, albeit rhythmically, on “Anything.” “Will I ever be a normal girl?” she asks on the contemplative “Normal Girl.” With the help of TDE label mate Isaiah Rashad, she sings “My wings don’t spread like they used to, but I wanna fly with you,” on “Pretty Little Birds.”

CTRL concludes with the reflective “20 Something”—an unflinching and delicate take on the space between youth and adulthood. “Hopin’ my 20 somethings won’t end/Hopin’ to keep the rest of my friends—Prayin’ these 20 somethings don’t kill me,” she declares over restrained electric guitar plucks that, in a sense, bring us back around to the way the album opens.

As it draws to a close, CTRL can be seen as an album about those spaces in between things—the fleetingness of youth and the uncertainty of adulthood; the confusion between love and sex; the tumult of your own strengths, confidence, and weaknesses. It’s all here, and more—and through it all, Rowe has made a captivating, important, and wise album.

In an interview with Vulture, on the eve of CTRL’s release, Rowe mentions that through all the delays in the record, there were at least three different iterations of it that were scrapped while she was, as she puts it “lost in the album.” And in a late 2016 interview with Complex, there are implications that this may be her first and only album—Rowe may just want to move on to something else after the hype has died down.

Like so many artists before her, and like many that will follow, Rowe doesn’t owe us a thing. If she never makes another album after this, so what? CTRL is a gift, and a legacy, and it will be a tough act to follow. It is a challenging, thought provoking, and definitive artistic statement of beauty—an essential listen to anyone struggling with the same spaces in between that she is.