A soulfully smooth, raw, gorgeously honest and minimalist masterpiece, which touches on love, desires, sex, romance, self-respect, low self-esteem and trying to control and navigate the other modern complexities of love in your 20s, is how TDE First Lady, SZA’s debut album, Ctrl, can best be described. Like a sonic journey of lush stripped-down perfection, the records are often tender, vulnerable and defiant, as well as seamlessly and effortlessly wind between genres and narratives like it’s child’s play.
It’s an album where despite her struggles throughout life to control certain things, such as depression, anxiety and even the difficulties she had to just release the album, make no doubt about it she’s still in full control and in the drivers seat throughout it. Writing all 14 tracks, with her voice upfront, she fully commands the foreground of her songs and her stellar songwriting, even despite all of its conventional quirks. Recorded to sound natural and unaffected, it’s ambient, minimalist rich sound and mostly lush production, along with its striking relatability is what also makes the album so great.
Starting with the very stripped-down minimalist opening track, Supermodel. Where SZA very confidently hits a clarion high note while dissing her ex-boyfriend’s new girl. An exposed diary entry, which establishes a balance of strength, honesty and fragility all at once. Where she sings unfussy self-reflection lyrics, “Why you in Vegas all up on Valentine’s Day? Why am I so easy to forget like that?” Second single, Love Galore featuring Travis Scott, which was co-produced by thankgod4cody & Carter Lang, meanwhile is a very drum and keyboard backed, love-infused seductive collaboration. While the very smooth and dank boom-bap beat on the Kendrick Lamar featured, Doves in the Wind, confidentially speaks to pussy power. Standout lead single, Drew Barrymore is a very catchy pop-infused record, that despite its somber tone is a favorite sing-along, which also is both as empowering and gratifying of a record you could have post-breakup. While standout Prom, which was co-produced by Scum and Lang, whose muted guitars and teen angst, make it an outright pop triumph. Both producers handle most of the production throughout the album too, building on a mostly minimalist sound throughout. One or both producing on all but two of the 14 tracks.
As the album moves into the second half with records like the glossy introspection of the 90’s-era neo-soul sounding, The Weekend, the chants of the Scum, Lang and Frank Dukes co-produced, Go Gina, probably the best written record on the album, Garden (Say It Like Dat), the progressive effect of trucks on a trip-hop futurism approach on the thankgod4cody-produced, Broken Clocks, SZA, shows how she can so loosely thread these different stark portrayals all together, yet still make nothing sound out of place. Whether it’s the time-stopping story of her working in a strip club and the sudden epiphany she had when she realized she wanted to make music on Broken Clocks or her looking for a way out on the James Fauntleroy featured and co-written, Wavy (Interlude), or even her shortcomings to keep the man she wants that causes her to wish and desire to be a normal girl on the very smooth and minimalist, Normal Girl, shows that it’s one of the biggest strengths of the album, that she doesn’t strive for it to be one thing over the other.
The vaporous guest verse from labelmate, Isaiah Rashad, over the electronic jazzy production of Pretty Little Birds, showing once again how she does so. The very stripped-down guitar strings of the Scum and Lang co-produced closer, 20 Something, is quite brilliant too and let’s SZA’s overdubbed backup vocals ponder all the uncertainties of her current status, while also savoring them as well and be honest on what’s easily one of the greatest records you may ever hear to close an album.
Framed by spoken-word interludes from SZA’s mother throughout the album. Her mother talks about trying to maintain as much sense of control as she can, even if as she states to close the album, “It’s just an illusion.” Illusion or not, SZA shows in her songs how much she can accept she can’t control certain things, while also quite contradictory fully controlling the actual album to deliver by far one of the best albums of the year across all music and what could’ve easily been one of the best albums of the year in each of the past couple of years, when it was originally supposed to be released.