Sunday, June 18, 2017

album review: 'ctrl' by sza

So I'll admit when I covered SZA's debut EP Z three years ago - although this looks like it was retroactively called a EP for branding purposes, given I remember considering it as a full-length debut as it was about forty minutes long - it was far from one of my best reviews. Part of the issue is that I wasn't really all that strong on it one way or the other - I really dug parts of the concept and the writing, but SZA's delivery and the oddly wonky and synth-heavy production left me feeling underwhelmed. And going back to the record now... you know, I might appreciate it a little more given my greater familiarity with alternative R&B, but that doesn't mean my issues with the fragmented and cavernous production or the guest stars that frequently eclipsed SZA had gone away. At the end of the day I was left feeling SZA was a compelling writer, but maybe a little more focus and refinement in the execution could bring things together better on a future project...

A project that didn't seem to be coming. Again, Z came out in 2014, and while SZA had contributed guest verses here and there - the most notable probably coming opposite RIhanna on ANTI last year, although she'd grace plenty of fellow TDE records - I was initially surprised that the follow-up took this long to get released. Maybe it had to deal with the fact that she was now signed to RCA, and when you factor in a major label you immediately lengthen timelines, but it also seemed like there was more rebranding going on: instead of being called A as advertised, it was retitled to Ctrl. And hey, that's not a bad thing, and if she had taken the time to get the production and execution issues worked out, I was curious how her writing would translate. So, given that this is her major label debut, what do we get from Ctrl?

Okay, looks like it's going to be a routine of me struggling with SZA review, because my plan was to get this out a few days ago so I could have time to work with Lorde or Jason Isbell... but no, this album took up a lot more energy than I expected - mostly because I really expected that I'd like it a fair bit more than I actually do. Because at least on the surface, this record does so much I like about R&B - it's got a defined and distinctive sound that actually flatters SZA's voice this time around and plays in tones I like, the guest performances are great but not to the point of overshadowing her, and thematically the record feels as rich as ever... and yet while I'll definitely say it's good, I'd struggle to call this as great as I'd like.

And here's the odd thing: with every listen I kept having the impression I should be liking this more than I do, especially when we consider how much SZA defines and humanizes herself on this record. There were consistent questions of insecurity and self-doubt that ran through Z, but Ctrl shows that balanced against SZA taking more agency. Much of this record runs through relationship drama, what seems to be a never-ending cycle of cheating, lies, arguing, jealousy, and yet I like how it's established very early that it doesn't make a lot of sense that the guys keep coming back - or that when they call, SZA actually answers. And while many of the guys on this record make it abundantly clear where they're coming from - from Travis Scott's natural but more tastefully restrained hedonism on 'Love Galore' that doesn't need much explanation, to Kendrick's wry verse on 'Doves On The Wind' which half feels like a bet on how many times he could put in the word 'pussy' but also highlights both the obsession and entitlement so many guys feel and their own insecurity to get there, to Isaiah Rashad's burned out exhaustion on 'Pretty Little Birds' hoping that whatever truth he can deliver is enough - the more interesting character is SZA herself. Z may have planted the seeds surrounding her insecurities and depression, but the frame is significantly expanded here, as she second-guesses herself far more than the shifting relationships, or whether she's even worthy of that sort of love in the first place. She almost seems surprised when the guy wants to come back after a particularly vicious argument on 'Love Galore', or how the guys are willing to cheat to be with her on 'Drew Barrymore' or the borderline transactional 'The Weekend' or 'Broken Clocks'. And yet SZA is highlights that despite how some of this is unique to her situation - especially given her touring schedule - these are pretty common insecurities, and while she might wish to be 'normal' and be more of what her partners want, the sharpest punchline of 'Normal Girl' might be surrounding how normal some of these feelings are, and yet she's willing to embrace her differences regardless. And while there's a moralistic part of me that'd be inclined to highlight how reckless or even self-serving this can feel... well, for one, SZA's not glorifying any of it, and for another, if there is actual love there, it's allowed to not make a lot of sense, especially when by the end of the record SZA manages to push against projection and find control amidst the turbulence. 

In other words, much of what SZA is writing about is growing towards the persona that Jhene Aiko has consistently embodied - a little more raw, a little less refined and poised, but also a little less capricious and more relatable. And one thing that I really enjoyed is, just like Souled Out, a brand of more organic R&B production with a lot of muted subtlety and plenty of guitar. And I'm not going to mince words: while it's not perfect and can feel a bit listless on the back half of the record, this is the sort of production that's right up my alley, from the more muted guitar balanced against the organ on 'Go Gina' which was even more luscious and watery on 'Drew Barrymore', to the stripped back strumming that anchors 'Supermodel' and the closer '20 Something', it's a great organic sound that fits SZA's voice remarkably well. Hell, there was great tone and organic body that the cheaper trap rattle on 'Garden (Say It Like Dat)' or 'Broken Clocks' or 'Wavy' or the odd blocky blend of synths on 'Anything' just got a bit distracting, especially when you realize the staccato grooves aren't quite as striking, or that odd thin synth gurgle on 'Normal Girl' could have been swapped for something more organic and I'd probably dig the song a lot more. But really, that's nitpicking - most of this production has great restraint and control, I loved the horns filling out 'Pretty Little Birds', and compared to previous projects, the production isn't drowning SZA out, letting every crack and rough edge of her delivery cut through...

And look, I'm not denying that some of that adds character to the more organic songs on this record, with the multi-tracking adding just enough swell when its needed to still sound pretty heavenly. But I think at the end of the day my biggest issue with this record might be with SZA herself and some of the fundamentals that can feel a little sloppier than I'd otherwise hope. Part of this is delivery - on the one hand, she's got a throatier delivery on songs like 'Drew Barrymore' or 'Anything' that I actually quite like, but there are definitely points where it feels like she's either mumbling or slurring her words on purpose, which can feel sloppier than she otherwise needs. And that's before you get to the technical elements of the writing: beyond the subject matter which can occasionally feel a little barebones in its details, there are more than a few places where SZA just rhymes an entire phrase with itself, or piles on the repetition, which can make more than a few of these songs feel a little thinly sketched and underwritten, or just filling up space when they don't need that.

But again, that's more nitpicking... but it is enough that I'm not really inclined to like this record as much as I wanted. It's certainly good and reflects a sound and style that's definitely a better fit for SZA going forward, but there's a part of me that still feels she's growing into her own, and I'd like to see more of that progression continue - she's probably got a great record in her, but not quite yet. As such, for me this is an easy 7/10 and definitely a recommendation, especially if you're into R&B's softer and more vulnerable side. It might have taken us a while to get this, but I'm happy SZA finally delivered - check it out.

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