SZA – CTRL

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The multiple references to leg shaving and how she don’t wanna should tell you all you need to know about the music; the lyrics, anyway: this is music about being a woman. Personally, that’s a fucking miracle – we don’t get those often. For clarity, I’m not being facetious – you can prepare your rebuttals because I want to know I’m wrong – but I’m hard-pressed to think of an album that explores female psyche to the level that this one does.

Specifics: she keeps undercutting you on opener “Supermodel”, the (honeyedly sung) revelation that she’d been “banging your homeboy” should be some sort of triumph but it’s immediately followed by the miserable “Why you in Vegas all up in Valentine’s Day / Why am I so easy to forget like that?” A similar effect later on, “The, the dick was too good / It made me feel good,” in contrast to the way she sings, “You was a temporary lover” afterwards, spinning the last note like she can’t bear to say the word “lover.” (Think about why she might stutter to sing about the d being good.) That’s all to say nothing of how producer Scum sits on the drums for as long as he does, using a laconically strummed guitar more or less the only accompaniment.

Similarly, the following “Love Galore” has a chorus that goes “Why you bother me when you know you don’t want me? / Why you bother me when you know you got a woman? / Why you hit me when you know you know better” that’s already powerful to begin with, even forgetting the words because it’s one of the year’s best melodies (plus there’s a synth-as-horns that comes in to brighten the day), but it’s rendered even more powerful when she reveals she still wants him despite all of that (also contradicting the earlier lyric of him “Acting like we wasn’t more than a summer fling”). Elsewhere, she sings “Sorry, I just need to see you” on “Drew Barrymore” so sweetly that when she growls “It’s hard enough you got to treat me like this / Lonely enough to let you treat me like this” immediately after, it adds a complicated layer to what should have been the most straight-forward song on the album. Put it this way: there’s no glorification in her actions on “Supermodel” or “The Weekend” (“My man is my man is your man, heard it’s her man too”), she’s just trying to mend her low self-esteem (“I know you’d rather be laid up with a big booty […] You know I’m sensitive about having no booty”; “I get so lonely, I forget what I’m worth / We get so lonely, we pretend that this works”; “I wish I was a normal girl”) or her generational malaise (“Prom” and ’20 Something”).

Yes, most of the best songs are in the album’s opening stretch, especially bolstered by the guest features. On “Love Galore” (which, by the way, has more successful hooks than you can count), Travis Scott acts the distanced male in the dialogue while deploying my favorite trick about him, how his voice and autotune sounds like when he does that long vowel sound (“You like when I make fire / You say, ‘La flame, keep making fire’”; who cares that it’s meaningless, it sounds so fucking good!). Kendrick Lamar shows up on the one immediately after, taking his pussy breakdown on “goosebumps” (speaking of Travis and his ability to make certain vowel sounds sound great…) to a dizzying new height. (Public Service Announcement: the way SZA sings “pussy” at the 1:37 mark is it. It’s the sexiest way anyone’s uttered that word. All you vocal pornstars, all you girlfriends, sorry.) And yeah, he lost me with “How many niggas get mistaken for clitoris in a day?” but the flow switch with “Pussy can be so facetious, the heavyweight champ” and the thickened “I mean the pump fakes on the Facebooks / And the screw face when the bae look” more than make up for it. Actually, SZA first verse is the worst part of the track; her lyrics about Forrest Gump sounding a bit too drunk diary entry for my liking, but she more than makes up for it on the following “Drew Barrymore” (whose music video contains a cameo appearance from guess who in one of the best moments of the year, of any medium or anyone’s lives). There’s the stunning display of rhythm in the first verse (“You came with your new friends / And her mom jeans and her new Benz”), a rhythm that’s highlighted when she starts employing internal rhymes later on (“Somebody get the tacos, somebody spark the blunt / Let’s start the Narcos off at episode one / Bring the gin, got the juice / Bring the sin, got that too“). Plus, the choruses are so fucking sexy! I’ve seen some people say the first four tracks are where it’s at, but that leaves out “Prom”, the first groove-centric song on the album, which will have you dancing alone in your room (Sh-sh-shame!”).

Yes, there’s a drop afterwards, with rote stuff like “Garden (Say It Like Dat)” or the forgettable “Wavy (Interlude)” despite one of the four features on the album, but there are some highlights in the last stretch: the end groove of “Anything”, the coda of “Normal Girl”, “Pretty Little Birds” (featuring a heavily manipulated Isaiah Rashad).

The opening skit of “Supermodel” (“That if, if I lost control / Or did not have control, things would just, you know”) always reminds me of the opening skit to a different classic, contemporary R&B album. Methinks this one’s just as good (if not better)!

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6 responses to “SZA – CTRL

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