Debut albums will often claim to be fully-formed statements of intent, or the sound of growing pains and self-discovery. SZA’s ‘Ctrl’ is neither of these. That might be because she’s been introduced a couple of times before – on misty-eyed self-released tapes ‘See.SZA.Run’ (2012) and ’S’ (2013), and then again on album-length EP ‘Z’, which announced her as Top Dawg Entertainment’s first female signing, sharing the spotlight with Isaiah Rashad and one Kendrick Lamar. Oh, and she also starred with Rihanna on last year’s ‘Consideration’.
‘Ctrl’ skips the friendly hello and dives straight into SZA’s world. Across 45 minutes, she breathlessly leaps between genres, and laments on tired and broken relationships in a stream-of-consciousness style that fans of Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’ will adore.
For anyone completely new to the 26-year-old (whose moniker stands for “Self-savior, Zig-zag-zig, Allah”), it won’t take long to feel familiar. Opener ‘Supermodel’ is a real-life break-up letter translated into song. “Let me tell you a secret,” she begins, “I been secretly banging your homeboy. Why you in Vegas all up on Valentine’s Day? Why am I so easy to forget like that?” None of this is fiction. In a 2014 interview with The Breakfast Club, SZA revealed she got a call from one of her boyfriend’s friends, who let slip he’d had an orgy in Vegas. She instantly got her revenge, and then she wrote about it.
SZA isn’t afraid to include all the gory details. She’s similarly at ease with exploring her own strengths and perceived shortcomings. ‘Normal Girl’ is all bedroom bravado, but she admits she wants to be “the type of girl you take over to mama.” And ‘Broken Clocks’ is a time-stopping story of her time working in a strip club, and the sudden epiphany she had when realising she wanted to make music.
Best of all is how loosely these stark portrayals thread together. Standout ’Prom’ is an out-and-out pop triumph, built from The Police-like muted guitars and teen angst. It’s surrounded by the sluggish R&B stylings of ‘Drew Barrymore’ and ‘The Weekend’’s glossy introspection. But somehow nothing sounds out of place. ‘Ctrl’’s strength is how it doesn’t strive to be one thing over the other. It effortlessly winds between narratives and genres like it’s child’s play. This isn’t a star in the making, it’s a fully-fledged talent who’s practically showing off.