A strident statement on neurosis set against the challenges of modern relationships, SZA’s long awaited debut CTRL holds its own, head and shoulders above everything else released so far 2017.
The record’s background is remarkably DIY in the best possible way - the now 27-year old Solána Rowe used to lift beats from the web and lay down her own melodies and lines during stints as a bartender. That still doesn’t quite explain just where the hell the visionary centre of the record came from; CTRL is flush with pure and unfettered skill at all levels, cutting across the genres with supreme confidence. It's so rare to see such a thing on a debut - especially one with such a difficult gestation period (almost four years).
At its core, CTRL does neo-soul cut through with R&B but there’s bits that sound like she OD’d on chillwave a few years back too. The production is beautifully hazy and drunk, like listening to a symphony through the last moments of a dream. It’s a brilliant wash of sound that recalls the likes of Frank Ocean’s Blonde.
What stands front and centre are two things: the conviction and intelligence of Rowe's lyrics and her canny grasp of vocal melody. She reaches deep into the familiar, trawling across the many facets of love and sex that trip up romance at all levels. It’s accessible, relatable and honest - in fact I can’t recall another record that translates these themes in such a profound way. By working within the framework of pop music she leverages the familiar with nuance and impact. There’s anger about society’s expectations (“I’m sorry I'm not more attractive / I'm sorry I'm not more ladylike / I’m sorry I don't shave my legs at night…” she riffs on "Drew Barrymore") and grapples with the allure of a straightforweard existence: “I wanna be the type of girl you take home to your mama / The type of girl, I know your fellas would be proud of.” In one of the record’s most affecting moments, she cries,“Hope you never find out who I really am / ‘Cause you'll never love me, you'll never love me”. And then there’s Rowe' mom, bookending the record as the voice of both expectation and assurance. It's a move that's convinving without being cheap.
From start to finish, CTRL os nothing less than outstanding - the late arrival of a very important artist.