SZA presents herself as an unapologetic femme fatale, often to hilariously blunt effect.
The delayed debut is increasingly common. In the age of SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and accessible production software, artists can build steady buzz for years before dropping their first LP. Jersey-based alt-R&B singer SZA (pronounced “sizza”) has been around since 2013, kicking up hype with two mixtapes, an EP and a Rihanna feature. She released her first full-length album Ctrl two weeks ago after it spent a year-long stint in label-assisted limbo.
A downside to this era of extended buildup is the fact that we become familiar with an artist’s style before they’ve formally Arrived—the breadcrumb trail of mini-releases squanders the ritual of debuting. No matter how good Chance’s first proper album is, for instance, it isn’t going to surprise us. Luckily, SZA manages to show enough growth between 2014’s Z and Ctrl to reinvigorate the process. Her music has always been breezy and conversational, but Ctrl possesses a tighter focus and more eclectic sound than anything else she’s put out. Against all odds, listening to the album feels like listening to someone discover their voice for the very first time.
And what a voice it is. Throughout the album, the 26 year-old SZA presents herself as an unapologetic femme fatale, often to hilariously blunt effect. On the drippy, slow-moving “Supermodel,” she sings “Let me tell you a secret/I been secretly banging your homeboy,” adding “Leave me lonely for prettier women/You know I need too much attention for shit like that.” It’s harder than it seems to be funny on record, and those are just two of several moments that deserves an audible chuckle.
It’s a delicate balance, though, because sardonic wit and self-deprecation can threaten a song’s emotional core. If there’s too much irony, or if the aloofness feels like an affectation, it drains the material of potential poignance. SZA walks the tightrope flawlessly. Her passionate, nasally alto injects even Ctrl’s most steel-clad moments with sweetness and yearning. On “Drew Barrymore,” an intentionally-overwrought number so named for its kinship with ’90s teen cinema, she cries “Is it warm enough for you outside, baby?/Is it warm enough for you inside me?” and the purity of her longing transcends the fact that she just talked about the temperature of her vagina.
An album can’t skate by on personality alone, though. What holds Ctrl together as more than a well-sung account of heartbreak and giddy promiscuity is its near-cinematic structure. In addition to “Drew Barrymore,” we get several Forrest Gump references on the triumphant, Kendrick-featuring “Doves in the Wind,” where SZA declares “Forrest had a lot goin’ for him/Never without pussy/Y’know, Jenny almost gave it all up for him.” Elsewhere, “Broken Clocks” opens with a woozy Hollywood vocal sample and the excellent “Prom” is dotted with images of its characters “Hoppin’ through poppy fields” and “Dodgin’ evil witches.”
The entire album is threaded with audio clips of SZA in conversation with different maternal figures, discussing love, friendship and (you guessed it) control. Melodies weave into each other too: the lightly strummed guitar from “Supermodel” shows up again on beautiful album closer “20 Something,” suggesting the same sonic scene from a slightly different angle. All of this gives the project a coherence and drive that separates it from other similarly well-sung R&B recordings.
Given the time that we live in, where Bowie hires a jazz band and Beyoncé samples Led Zeppelin on a Jack White joint, it’s no surprise that Ctrl does away with genre—what’s interesting is the way that SZA lets the genreless sensibility of the music bleed into her lyrical storytelling. She never approaches artifice, but if you dig a bit, you can see her trying on different cinematic archetypes: The Other Woman on “The Weekend,” The Bored Workaholic on “Broken Clocks,” The Angsty Teen on “Normal Girl.” Some of these experiments are more successful than others, and there are perhaps one too many bawdy moments that seem to beg for an eyebrow raise just for kicks.
Still, Ctrl lingers. The codeine-laced drums of “Love Galore” and the hopscotched pre-chorus of “Drew Barrymore” swirl in your head. It doesn’t feel destined to move mountains or save anyone’s life, but it does manage to articulate exactly how it must feel to be SZA at 26: scary, funny, lonely, stoned and on the prowl more often than not. Forget the years of buildup; it leaves us eager to hear her take on 36, and as she sings toward the top of the album, “Hard to admit the party is over.”