SZA – Ctrl review

Solána Rowe, better known as SZA, has been feeling irritated, neurotic and emotional – and she’s here to tell you that. Because, as the 26-year-old singer said in a recent interview on Beats 1, “either you f*ck with me or don’t after this”. If you’ve sampled any of her music, from her early EPs to her guest spots with Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q or Rihanna, it’s hard to imagine feeling anything but adoration for her long-awaited debut, Ctrl.

SZA pulls no punches here. Thematically, there has always been a sort of troubled innocence to her music, which is pretty apparent in a song such as ‘Child’s Play’. But also an unapologetic desire to express her frustrations with men, and patriarchy (‘The Odyssey’). Ctrl continues these themes, and goes even further in its frankness.

Many of the songs here will become fast favourites, because SZA’s hooks provoke a primal response with their honesty, which is sometimes cheeky (‘Love Galore’), sometimes sobering (‘Supermodel’). ‘Garden (Say It Like Dat)’, the confessional antithesis to the bootylicious teachings of Destiny’s Child, is about her fear of losing a lover because she has “no booty”. Over a springy and peculiar loop, and with her gorgeous, faintly smoky voice, akin to Kehlani or Rihanna, SZA talks companionship and self-worth on ‘Drew Barrymore’. And on the flat-out flawless ‘Normal Girl’ with its dreamy loop that was made for a pristine Californian dream, she delivers a magnet performance.

Throughout Ctrl, SZA words are complemented by a melodic and hypnotic array of productions, akin to Portishead and The Internet, manly by Top Dawg’s in-house beatmakers. Sure, she says she’s “shy”, but give her a lush beat and a mic, and SZA slays. Steamy slow jam ‘The Weekend’ is SZA solidifying her place alongside Janet Jackson and Jhené Aiko on lovemaking playlists the world over. She shorts the breeze to talk “pieces and pages” on ‘Broken Clocks’ – which fits into the same all-work-no-play vibe as Frank Ocean’s ‘Nights’. And she maintains her flair for getting you poppin’ and wavy, too.

After a three-year wait and controversial claims she’d quit her label, it was inevitable that some would start to question whether SZA would ever manage to deliver a debut worthy of her potential. Well, from top to bottom, Ctrl is an absolute delight. This is SZA at her most vulnerable, but also her most alluring: it feels like an open and explicit therapy session, soundtracked by vivid neo-soul and wavy R&B. Flaunting tune after tune after tune, SZA’s debut is a new classic we’ll be talking about for years to come.


Ctrl is out now on Top Dawg/RCA Records. You can purchase the album on Apple Music, Google Play, Amazon.

If you like this artist, check out: Abra; Jhené Aiko

Image: courtesy of SZA/RCA Records