Janet Jackson’s breakout album was rightly titled Control. The overarching theme was about (you guessed it) being in control of her life, cliché but the purpose of the album only made the title more relevant. The songs exhibited the angst of a woman who wanted to be her own boss, she broke away from her father’s clasp, made the music she wanted and inherently the life she wanted.
SZA’s new album, CTRL can be viewed as an iteration of the ethos exhibited by Janet Jackson on her breakout album. Janet was pushing to start making her own decisions, SZA is trying to overwrite her past decisions with better ones. SZA threads along her past decisions on CTRL, in a bid to move forward and gain more (you guessed it, again) control of her life. Those who do not acknowledge history end up repeating it, SZA recalls her past and embraces her present as the first steps toward creating a blueprint for her steps forward.
Initially scheduled for a mid last year release with A as its working title, CTRL feels like a project that needed those delays to form itself. SZA’s presentation of her present thoughts have an insecurity to them. Her past actions seethe with regret sometimes and savagery at other times. But she has an eye towards respite in the future most of the time.
On ‘Prom‘, a gorgeous pop song where SZA spends time on the 2nd verse filing her regrets about past bad decisions, there’s still a little space for her to “promise to get a little better as I get older” on the hook. It’s a tentative line that carries power when juxtaposed with those regrets. While ‘Prom’ leans on regret, album opener, ‘Supermodel‘ uses savagery as its tool. With a glitchy acoustic guitar as the song’s sonic backbone, SZA sings about being in an unsatisfactory, attention starved relationship. She recalls cheating on the ex with his best friend on the first verse, before explaining the insecurities which made her persevere initially.
The biggest triumph on CTRL is its clarity as regards to songwriting and vocal delivery. SZA writes in a relational way that is encapsulated by the lucidity of her voice. Her earlier vocal efforts had a hazy intimacy akin to trip-hop, with sometimes knotty songwriting. CTRL is way clearer and every bit enjoyable for it. The first single off the album, ‘Drew Barrymore‘ retains every bit of its charm due to the palpability of SZA’s insecurity. Over languid drums, slow swinging piano chords and operatic strings, SZA’s mournful tone and lyrics unfurl with a sad beauty that’s impossible to dismiss.
Isaiah Rashad’s combination with SZA is always a winner but his raspy vocals on ‘Pretty Little Bird‘ add an unorthodox edge that is difficult to enjoy. The only guest feature that gels completely with SZA on CTRL is James Fauntleroy on the sadly short ‘Wavy (Interlude)’. Travis Scott’s contribution on ‘Love Galore’ feels uneven. Kendrick comes through with a usually enjoyable pyrotechnical cadence on ‘Doves In The Wind‘, a couple of his lines are nonsensical, though – “Pussy can be so facetious, the undisputed champ”.
CTRL closes with the gripping acoustic ballad, ‘20 Something‘. It’s self portrait that sums up SZA’s sentiments, mistakes are meant to be made and also learnt from at her current stage in life. SZA presents her jagged edges with grace and power on CTRL, two attributes that are necessary for leaving the past behind.
Writer’s Rating: 4.1/5
Words by Dennis (@ayo_dennis).