SZA’s debut album provides a lesson in quietude’s declarative force. Not musically — the astutely titled Ctrl, a shiny, crunchy, whirring R&B concoction, abounds with ear candy. It’s in the caution of her beats, the restrained restlessness of her melodies, the felt hesitancy of her vocals. These songs shimmer, awash in a sort of melancholy that faintly pervades the album without becoming overt. I hesitate to praise a performer for reticence, but the subtlety of SZA’s gestures demands notice.
Ctrl is a genuine sleeper hit. It was released last June to modest acclaim and impressive chart success without scoring a hit single. (Although “Love Galore” sounds great when played on certain hip-hop/R&B stations, and her guest vocal on Maroon 5’s “What Lovers Do” spruced up a passable pop-funk extravagance.) Yet the album went gold in October before suddenly appearing on the year-end lists of every music critic alive. I’m not surprised, for Ctrl is what seekers of aesthetic difficulty call a grower, the kind of album whose stunning details blossom after prolonged microscopic contemplation.
As a snapshot of R&B in its modern incarnation, the album‘s blend of erotic and confessional modes fascinates. SZA’s preferred songwriting device is to simulate the outpouring of emotion, the freeform venting of moods and wishes and anxieties crisscrossing and backtracking through her psyche, all molded into unified expressionistic bursts. Yet she also writes within the familiar R&B tradition, in which formalized pop songs are representational vehicles for desire, and she’s not above licking her lips over invoked and addressed lovers — or recoiling, as the case may be. Thus do the songs on Ctrl occupy a space where insecurities over sex, romance, and gender are credibly illuminated, coexisting as they do with music committed to functionalism and the pleasure principle.
Since excess subtlety has a way of shriveling R&B until its attenuated shell, stripped of any residual genre marks, dissipates into the wind, it’s worth stressing that Ctrl is a sneakily hooky album in the best way. Chewy tunes and underlying ostinato harmonies snake their way through a dense mesh of crackling snare drums, thumping electronic bass, fluttery keyboards, cold, breathy space, and a general textural harshness counteracted in the melodies and not much else.
Ctrl follows Rihanna’s Anti in constructing a model of R&B where sweet but uneasy songs are performed against abrasive, metallic, mechanized beats. I wonder if Anti’s success enabled the success of similar music, opened the door for similar equations of harshness with pop functionality, and, specifically, a mode of R&B in which electronic distortion stimulates, both musically and metaphorically. It’s a neat paradox: typically, a mechanical sound indicates accessibility in pop, but in the context of erotica, it signals repression. When desire is the theme, formalism can produce a sense of holding something back, of keeping certain feelings hidden no matter how engaging the hook. Gestures that depart, however slightly, from the formalist baseline, in this context feel huge.
Since SZA’s loose, unpredictable vocal style departs from the baseline rather significantly, given the music’s airy and stark quality, the resulting contrast quivers with solemn emotional power. “Love Galore” cruises over a clicking drum machine, wispy keyboard breeze, and synthesized percussion popping in place, evoking a sleek, efficient electronic machine. Meanwhile, SZA wails and bounces in every direction, her voice cracking, remaining within the rough confines of the melody while bending it to her own capricious will. The music stays in place while the singer jitters all over the place. She’s simulating moments of intense release, framed by coldness — the coldness is what enables release.
On the opening “Supermodel,” she sings over unaccompanied, dissonant guitar strumming, with drums skittering in only toward the end. Her singing captivates, while the guitar’s tone and texture establish a crisp, chilly sonic palette that the subsequent album, despite her ostensible blurring of genres, stays faithful to. SZA’s voice is a vibrant thing: pained, nasal, layered, gulping down consonants, seeming to glow. Partially it’s the melodic loopiness, partially it’s the way she plays with it, but her vocal performance on Ctrl suggests a dynamic uncertainty, as if she’s never quite sure where she’ll next take a song, making the decision in the moment. Such a vocal approach suits the album’s lyrical themes, especially when she airs anxiety about romance, gender, youth, or the gaping existential void, or her longing to be a “Normal Girl.”
The rubbery bass, bleached waves of synthesizer, glittering arpeggiated keyboard specks, and distorted vocoded moans on “The Weekend” provide an affectless but somehow mournful backdrop for her tale of sharing a lover with who knows how many rivals (“You take Wednesday Thursday/then just send him my way/think I got it covered for the weekend”), as her own overdubbed voice weaves around her main vocal line. “Prom” soars, as ringing guitar chime combines with metallic and wooden percussion effects and SZA builds an echo chamber around her voice on the chorus: “Please don’t take it personal like you usually do,” she sings, as the delay mimics her, repeating “please” and “don’t” over and over into the fadeout.
Song after song shrugs off despair. The album’s cumulative effect is to take a sobering look at the corollaries of romance. Yet hope remains: “20 Something,” which closes the album, returns to “Supermodel”’s guitar tone, only calmer, lovelier, more reassuring. SZA’s voice is chirpy and quavery as she delivers a simple message fans should take to heart: “Stuck in them 20-somethings/good luck on them 20-somethings/but God bless these 20-somethings/hoping my 20-somethings won’t end/hoping to keep the rest of my friends/hoping my 20-somethings won’t kill me.” Appropriately, the song offers no certainty. It’s a prayer.
“Drew Barrymore” is Ctrl’s emotional center. On an album dominated by stealthy, oddly shaped exercises in how to twist around songform, a big, juicy, bleeding-heart power ballad packs a punch. Sharp guitar picking and ripples of organ adorn a traditional soul chord progression that grows in pathos and volume over the course of the song, while SZA, feeling lovelorn and dejected and desperate and defiant all at once, bellows out all her fears and desires. “Drew Barrymore” would ache on any album. Surrounded by quieter songs, it erupts in a burst of previously denied feeling, tearing a gash in Ctrl’s emotional fabric. It typifies the formal strategy of an album whose quiet gestures feel loud indeed.
Ctrl (2017) by SZA is available from Amazon and other online retailers.