Review: SZA, CTRL

As open about her flaws as she is her talents, SZA uses both to construct an honest portrait of a young woman who, at last, deftly comes into her own.
SZA CTRL cover art

To come to a sound decision on anything requires a bit of perspective. One gains perspective through experience and empathy, actions and emotions that constantly shift and shape our opinions and beliefs. Sometimes, to acquire an entirely fresh perspective, one must immerse themselves in the unfamiliar, trekking outside your comfort zone and comprehension to better understand something else. In the case of Solána Rowe, aka SZA, music was that unknown frontier, something she to this day still feels unsure of in terms of her own talent.

It takes Rowe until nearly the end of her long-awaited album to say to herself “maybe I should kill my inhibition.” Curiously arriving near the LP’s close, this statement arrives before a brief but effective pause, an ephemeral break which Rowe uses to pull listeners out of the groove of her debut, CTRL. The contents of this track, “Anything”, sum up much of the SZA saga so far, five-plus years of dismantled self-imposed barriers and anticipation that at one point threatened to derail her promising ascent. For all we know, CTRL may be the last thing we hear from her, and “Anything” pauses to force you to consider this. Rowe can be anything, including nothing if she so chooses. But CTRL sounds at last like SZA feels “down for the ride”, her tracks reverberating with an assurance and cadence perfected from the hazy, breathy atmosphere of her prior mixtapes.

While her past material exudes an ethereal-ness in both her voice and lyrics, CTRL grounds itself in Rowe’s hearty falsetto and finely tuned flow for a more direct approach. Blunt as the ones she smokes, Rowe bursts right out the gate in opener “Supermodel”, throwing out your shit and “banging your homeboy” over a set of minimal riffs that build alongside her temper. She bids for her inattentive lover’s attention through taunts and teases which simultaneously expose her own flaws and insecurities. “You know I need too much attention” digs at his and her heels, an assertion of her flaws which subsequently acknowledges her man never paid enough of it to notice. Both sides share blame, and Rowe’s commitment to unveiling her own shortcomings lends to CTRL’s particular talents, much of them surrounding her candid characterization of her behavior, her faith, and her fuckbois.

I only briefly wish to touch on the boys in this record, specifically to compare their relationship to that of the woman of the hour. Each of them, from pretty boy Travis Scott to King Kendrick himself serve to supplant Rowe’s own narrative, static characters who either cry (“Love Galore”) or pine (“Doves in the Wind”) over her. Try as they might, they fail to match Rowe’s relentless drive; because they fail to “believe” in her in the way she enjoins her man to on “Supermodel”. Only Isaiah Rashad, swooping in on “Pretty Little Birds” reaches Rowe’s level, joining her on a journey towards faith and self-love.

By disclosing her faults in a forthright manner, Rowe stands to de-stigmatize them. Instead of resenting the role of the other woman on “Love Galore” and “The Weekend”, Rowe delves into the character’s wants and needs as a means of normalizing her. We hear of the other woman all the time, but we rarely hear from her. And here she is, holding her man to his weekend promise for lovin’ and licky like he said he would. Far from the crazy side-piece trope such characters easily get brushed off as, Rowe keeps her man in check and in her court, in full understanding that mutual desire puts them both on the same playing field.

Few of Rowe’s songs on CTRL or her catalog in general embody the term “upbeat,” only the radio-ready highlight “Prom” and Z’s “Julia” are truly based on a driving beat. Despite its uptempo characteristics, “Prom” maps out Rowe’s deficiencies harsher than any other track, using an infectious, catchy beat to make up for them (“You probably wanna let me go/But you can’t though”). She presents said flaws more playfully on “Normal Girl”, bouncing faults off of how “I pump my fist/The way I bust my hips.” A more lighthearted peek at her character, “Normal Girl” falls into one of the CTRL’s few low points; as the chorus dreams of being a “normal girl,” it ironically falls into a fairly typical sound and theme. Where Rowe shines best is when grooving to her own cadence, a cadence developed by Rowe’s talents in areas outside of music.

That being said, she works with sounds one can wind and grind to, a quality made even more obvious upon learning the IRL Solána Rowe, out of the recording studio, loves to frequent the dance studio. I only recently discovered her dance aptitude, an epiphany which further evidenced Rowe’s knack for cultivating beats. Each of her songs possesses a languid, laid-back ambiance, expanding and contracting in ways perfect for accompanying choreography.

The further you delve into Rowe’s background, the more you understand she’s better suited to this than even she might expect. Though music came into her life at a later stage, poetry and writing occupied her time alongside dance and gymnastics. Rowe’s poetic side acts as one of her strongest talents, providing her an understanding of vocal rhythm optimal for her blend of full-voice sing-spit that Aubrey Graham dreams he could do half as well. Her unique rhythmic enunciation uses alliteration and half-rhymes rather than traditional rhyming patterns as a way to structure her verses, bridging together thoughts and ideas in fascinating ways. Somehow, Rowe manages to combine subjects like fairytales, stalkers, and courtship in lines that sound as endearing as they are beautiful: “You been jack’n, bean’n, stalk’n to get to my love” demonstrates as much rhythmic expertise as it does a lyrical one. Her most brilliant writing comes alive in the aforementioned “The Weekend” where the verses play upon a listener’s own assumptions. Turning what you expect to be “too” into “Tuesday” and conversely “Saturday” into “satisfied” forces your ears to make double takes. She did that?

Yes, she did, and most of it is for her benefit. Rowe explained on “The Breakfast Club” much of CTRL details conversations with herself and by proximity her faith, which manifests in frustration (“Broken Clocks”) and exhilaration (“Anything”). Her relationship with a higher power mirrors that of her relationship with her partners, a give-and-take which uplifts her when it works and agitates her when it doesn’t. “Do you even know I’m alive” is Janet Jackson’s boy troubles taken to literally a higher plane, one where the speaker questions God’s relationship to their existence. In her words, Rowe buried “three friends and a grandmother” over the course of her rising music career, experiences which leads to the jaded and sometimes existential thoughts pouring forth from Rowe’s never-ending wellspring.

To Rowe, control is a state of being that you don’t take, you embrace it, much like faith. Rowe admits she’s no idea what she’s doing when it comes to being an artist, but CTRL doesn’t suggest this at all. Rather it shows someone with a novel prose and delivery who uses these tools to explore music in ways those before her were unable to do. Her growth measures itself in the finale “20 Something”, a stripped back, emotional ballad for the 20s in Rowe’s life: her own age, the age of her friends and generation, and the era she lives in. Though she finds herself “20 something all alone still/Not a phone to my name”, she accepts the hand dealt her way with the hope that if she sticks it out at her own pace, she’ll be okay, a stance affirmed by her mommy by the record’s end. Given the state of the modern world, not many people harbor the strength to roll with the punches, but most people never take control of their lives quite like SZA. B PLUS