SZA embraces vulnerability on her debut album

Nazareth Izada/Contributing Writer

Alternative R&B songwriter SZA, born Solána Rowe, finds strength and control within vulnerability on her long-awaited debut “Ctrl”.

“Ctrl” is an exploration of the complexity of loneliness, sex and romantic relationships. These are all themes that have been present on SZA’s previous releases, like 2013’s mixtape “S” and 2014’s “Z,” but this time around the language isn’t obscured by abstraction or metaphors.

The lyricism on this album is direct, raw and emotional, all while the production and instrumentation pushes the boundaries of Alternative R&B as a genre.

Opening song “Supermodel” is a stripped-down track with a shimmering guitar intro reminiscent of Jay Som’s guitar work. The voice message sample from SZA’s mother at the very beginning sets the tone for the album’s themes, as she admits to fearing that loss of control would be fatal.

SZA’s vocals on “Supermodel” are no longer as dreamlike as they were on her past releases. Here her voice is bold and full, with a vocal delivery that rivals jazz and R&B greats like Amy Winehouse or Mary J. Blige.

Right from the opening track she confesses to sleeping with her ex-boyfriend’s best friend after she suspected he was being unfaithful to her, although later in the song she wishes she could be comfortable being alone.

SZA is not afraid to expose the ugliest, most fragile parts of herself, and she is aware of the difficult self-realizations that may come with it.

Lead single “Drew Barrymore” has SZA regretting her decision to stay in a toxic relationship. “Love Galore”, the album’s trap-influenced second single, builds on the same theme.

The track ponders lonely desperation as SZA and featured rapper Travis Scott ask “why you bother me when you know that you don’t want me?”.

SZA is never overshadowed on any features on this album. Even on “Doves in the Wind”, she shines over the hazy hip-hop production, while Kendrick Lamar’s feature on the track complements her delivery.

“Ctrl” does not lack a sense of humor, however. On “Pretty Little Birds”, SZA sings a line about wanting to shave her legs for the man she’s seeing, and she makes a point to mention she is used to playing men multiple times throughout the album.

Aside from its playfulness, one of the most endearing parts of “Ctrl” is that it is not necessarily cynical. SZA’s turmoil arises from a need for genuine love, whether this be self-love or romantic relationships.

She understands its trials and complexities, but keeps hope that she will be able to love and receive love back if she bases it on honesty.

Final track “20 Something” recalls the guitars of the opening track, and goes back to the themes of lost time seen on third single “Broken Clocks”. She wishes “good luck on those 20-somethings,” which she could be singing to herself or to her audience.

Either way, within fear and uncertainty SZA has discovered who she is and what she needs. Within vulnerability is where Solána Rowe maintains her control.

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