Love isn’t a rare topic in the music scene. From the Motown classics of Marvin Gaye and the like in the ‘60’s, to the screeching power ballads of the rock bands of the ‘80’s, love has a rich history in music. In 2017, artists like SZA continue this tradition of love.
In ctrl, SZA talks about her experiences of love in a confessional manner, sounding like a friend or a lover talking to some other. She has backed her album with an R&B and indie sound, playing around with instruments and fresh and innovative beats and rhythms.
The album starts out with an explanation of her album’s title. On track “Supermodel,” SZA’s mother speaks about the loss of control being fatal. The album revolves around this central theme; the love SZA talks about being a tightrope act between two people. When the music kicks in, it’s a chilling guitar riff with a vulnerable SZA talking to her lover who had an affair. The melancholy throughout the track is akin to preachy indie rock, but the way she phrases her lyrics is still, at its core, in an R&B style. This mix of genres makes SZA completely unique.
The next tracks continue with SZA’s interesting exploration into the different facets of R&B. In “Love Galore,” she collaborates with Travis Scott to create a queasy, unsettling ballad that pines for attention and affection. Lyrically, it’s a complement to the previous track, but the backing instrumentals are a big contrast. This sets up the rest of the album, as each track is a surprise, without any guarantee of how SZA puts together different sounds. This is demonstrated further in the track “Prom,” where SZA flexes her pop sensibilities, creating a track that is reminiscent of the stylings of pop balladeer Sia, but also the sound of British rock band The Police. It’s clear at this point that SZA is an artist all on her own.
SZA tells her truth without a filter. In “Drew Barrymore,” she calls out, “Am I warm enough for you?”, doubting her self-worth, asking for forgiveness for feeling inadequate for her lover. The title itself is an homage to the actress, who she grew up watching in movies and idolizing. She takes experiences like this and sheds light to them. In an age where female artists highlight girl power and the dominatrix figure, she speaks about the inevitable weakness and vulnerability on the other side.
Despite being very vulnerable in it, she also hits hard when she needs to. In “Doves in the Wind,” a collaboration with rap superstar Kendrick Lamar, she talks explicitly about men and their fixation on sex. She calls them out, telling them she’s more than just her pussy, putting the female genitalia in a position of power, as Lamar states, “Pussy can be so facetious / the heavyweight champ.”
In “Go Gina,” she brings up another ‘90’s character, Gina from the sitcom Martin, and comments on how loosening up instead of being so uptight and hardworking would’ve let Gina live a better, more enjoyable life. She also talks about real problems, things that eat you up at night. In one of the latter tracks “Normal Girl,” she wishes she was the “Type of girl you wanna take home to mama,” a “normal girl.” Instead of the sex or romance, she talks about self-love. SZA isn’t just her owning up to her vulnerabilities, but taking everybody else with her on this ride, exploring topics that irk her.
What SZA does brilliantly is bringing us into her world and her mind, as she thinks out loud throughout the album, confessing experiences of love and its exciting and excruciating aspects. The frankness displayed exposes her experiences, and to flesh them out in the way she did is to tap into places many are embarrassed to be in. She isn’t shying away from her vulnerabilities at all in the album. In fact, she ponders on them and dives into them head-first, and we can relate to it. As much as we try to suppress them, these problems have all bothered us at one point. All SZA did was tell us what we already knew in a musically rich and lyrically genuine way.