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SZA Takes Back Her ‘Ctrl’

The TDE songstress’s long-awaited proper debut is conceptual and lucid but more pointed and confident than her previous work

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

For the unversed, “SZA” seems a little too familiar for a name you don’t know. An acronym for which the last two letters are ZA and is in proximity to a drum loop conjures a specific group of people. And Clarks Wallabees. But as the RZA himself explains on the trailer for Ctrl, SZA’s honest-to-goodness major label debut, out now, she’s neither a new member nor a fake member, and she doesn’t have anything to do with Wu-Tang. “SZA” stands for “Self-savior, Zig-zag-zig, Allah,” which is decent stenotype for her formative years.

The simplest version of SZA’s epic goes as follows: born Solana Rowe in St. Louis, she was raised an orthodox Muslim in New Jersey on the polished, classical tastes of her father — Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, the like. She stopped wearing her hijab when the other kids at school started calling her “Arabian Knight” and “terrorist” after 9/11, began bartending at strip clubs at 17, got high all through college, and flunked out of her last semester of marine biology at Delaware State. Around that time she met Terrence “Punch” Henderson, copresident of Top Dawg Entertainment. (Yes, that Top Dawg Entertainment; the Kendrick Lamar one.) She then put her foot down about pursuing music. SZA’s parents — well, for sure her mother, whose messages of encouragement are heard over the phone in interludes throughout Ctrl — were mostly supportive if not totally understanding of her decision.

And we almost didn’t make it — a fact SZA has attributed to being “childish” but so too to the emotional attrition of having buried a number of loved ones.

There were three “debuts” before this debut, however. The first were two free projects in 2013’s S and See.SZA.Run, two strange and beautiful tapes on which she molded a washed-out sound and waded into the realm of trip-hop on standouts like “Aftermath.” Then came Z, an album-length EP that doubled as her coming-out party as TDE’s First (and still only) Lady. Being the lone female artist on a mostly rap and otherwise all-male label is its own obstacle — for every Rhapsody that long outlives Kooley High, there’s a shelved Ladybug Mecca. In the case of TDE, there was a very recognizable masthead and established personalities to go along with it. By 2014, TDE already boasted Kendrick, the rap luminary and high priest; Schoolboy Q, loud capper and willing enforcer; Jay Rock, the OG and the perceived threat; Ab-Soul, the street zealot. They connected to form Black Hippy, and Black Hippy was TDE; TDE, Black Hippy. SZA, like fellow signee Isaiah Rashad — who released his TDE debut, Cilvia Demo, in 2014 — was a contradiction in terms. Isaiah Rashad was a rapper’s rapper who listened to Boosie, Outkast, and Juvenile; SZA was something of a bedroom, chillwave R&B artist who cited Bjork and Macy Gray as influences. Neither were from the West Coast, both were still figuring themselves out.

For SZA, Z was a promising first step but a shaky one. She gamely tries on different interesting sounds before stripping down and moving on to the next (she went full-on pop on “Julia”; she sang over a whole Marvin Gaye song for “Sweet November” on some Ghostface shit). But her voice — somehow forceful even as it evaporates on impact? I’m still trying to figure it out — gets swept out on the current of production. On “Warm Winds,” she and costar Rashad go up in the same wisp of smoke, neither distinguishable from the backdrop. On “Shattered Ring,” what could have been a soaring chorus instead sounds overly filtered and miles away.

Second, Z was, well, writerly. The metaphors were often stretched too high to climb over, too long to get around. (I know exactly what I look like, thank you.) Lyrically, it seems as though SZA might be content if she could just opt out — of daily responsibilities; of boring standards of feminine beauty; of men who are, on average, terrible; of society altogether — but you have to approximate that. Few concepts on Z, if any, were laid out flat. For instance, you could listen to “Babylon” minus the winded Kendrick verse for four hours straight — I did once, it was a Tuesday — and still not be certain as to whether the lover’s quarrel described therein is with her father, her actual lover, the world, or herself. Artfully tracing the outlines of the feelings being had while also skimping on the experiences that stirred them, SZA both drew you in and kept you at arm’s distance. It was alluring, sure, but in the most maddening way possible. As though she had your ear and was still deciding what she was willing to divulge.

In a Breakfast Club interview on Wednesday, though, SZA declared that her desire to fixate on these failed dalliances had run out: “All these relationships I’m talking about are over.” And so on “Supermodel,” Ctrl’s opener, she intones gracefully, ever so sweetly over briny strains … that she’s been banging your friend while you were showing your whole ass in Vegas. On “Love Galore”:

Skrt skrt on bitches
I don’t know these bitches
Dig dirt on bitches, do it for fun
Don’t take it personal, baby
Love on my lady
Love to my ladies
I’ve dated a few

We’re not just gesturing at stuff and stringing fuzzy hypotheticals together anymore, we [clap] are [clap] clapp- [clap] -ing [clap] out [clap] syl- [clap] -la- [clap] -bles. Ctrl is conceptual and lucid but more pointed and confident than any of SZA’s previous work. “Drew Barrymore” is a song about loving yourself enough for two people and acknowledging that the feat can’t be accomplished without some form of self-acceptance. SZA has grown into her quirks, and beautifully. Even as SZA sings about insecurities and uncertainties, Ctrl is comfortable, adept. Over the course of the album’s brisk 46 minutes, she capably wields disparate styles instead of shimmying into them.

“Prom,” the out and out pop song, is everything “Julia” wasn’t: distinct, glimmering, fun, reminiscent of mid-2000s Kelly Clarkson (both “Since U Been Gone” and “Never Again” still bang, don’t ever play yourself). “The Weekend” is like “Lovers and Friends” — well, “Lovers and Friends” is the “Lovers and Friends” of all generations, including the ones that came before it, but “The Weekend” is a solid no. 2. It’s a little piece of sexy-flexy body-roll R&B about cheating being a matter of perspective.

SZA’s songwriting is tighter here than on Z. “Garden (Say It Like Dat)” is, in the spirit of Beyoncé’s “Flaws and All,” grateful for love that doesn’t depend on condition. It’s also a reminder that love is work, so deal with it: “I know I be difficult, you know I be difficult, you know it get difficult.” Elsewhere, like on “Pretty Little Birds,” which sounds like the forest of Arden from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, SZA is plaintive but playful: “I wanna be your golden goose, I wanna shave my legs for you.” I’d be remiss not to mention the Kendrick verse on “Doves in the Wind,” wherein he says “pussy can be so facetious” which … sure, Kendrick.

And then, out of absolutely nowhere, “20 Something” happens. The first thing you hear is the dewy strings, then:

How you ain’t say you was movin’ forward?
Honesty hurts when you’re getting older

It’s wondering aloud about taking the next step, which is often scary. But it is preferable to the alternative — which I’ll bet Solana Rowe weighed on more than one late night in William C. Jason Library, fulfilling an obligation instead of chasing a dream. Stumbling, even falling still counts as forward progress. And with Ctrl, SZA has gained ground. Maybe even lapped a few people.