CTRL * SZA * Alt. R&B * June 9, 2017
SZA’s last album seemed to tell us a story of a woman looking for agency in a world where love is fleeting and those you love can let you down even when they try their hardest. It was a lyrically dense album, full of a lot of plays on words and poetic themes that could easily go over a listener’s head if they weren’t really concentrating on what she was saying. We didn’t see that as a bad thing, though, it gave her lyrics a unique personality that could not easily be copied or said to have been copied. While the vocals and production quality weren’t perfect, we ultimately enjoyed it and have gone back to on several occasions, always finding something new.
What we began to notice on the run-up to this album is that, while still very much in her own style, the lyrical density that marked the first album had thinned some. No, the lyrics weren’t dumbed down; but they also seemed to reach out to the audience more in terms of allowing them to understand her more easily. The biggest surprise is that the production and vocals were vastly improved. We were impressed and felt that, if this overall quality was maintained throughout the entire project, SZA was going to break through in a way that she hadn’t before. The question was would we see something new or would this be Z rehashed and made more accessible for a wider audience?
1. Supermodel – The first track and SZA is already showing us something different than she did on the first album. After a intro from her mother, SZA reveals the secret to her ex that she has slept with his best friend as revenge for his possible (it’s not definitively stated in the track itself) infidelities. The interesting thing about this track is that the writing is almost stream of consciousness. Some of the lines don’t rhyme, others have a lot of end-word repetition, and she seems to switch subject matter halfway through. But it’s what she switches to that makes this song work. She goes from blaming him for making her lash out to lashing out at herself, realizing that some of her reaction is based on the fact that she can’t be happy within herself and needs someone to affirm her value. The lines I can be your supermodel if you believe/If you see it in me…/I don’t see myself are powerful and effortlessly turn her gaze inward, making the transition seamless. Her vocals have so much energy but don’t sound angry. There is liveliness to her tone that works for someone who resort to a revenge lay and yet also begins to sound somewhat sad about her actions and the fact that she might be doomed to repeat them. The production is mid-tempo but has a great underlying beat, giving that same introspective liveliness as the vocals. A solid track and a great opener.
2. Love Galore – The second single, the way that this track joins with the previous one both sonically and lyrical is great. Still seeming to be talking about the same ex, SZA has gone from being angry at both of them for the outcome of the relationship to missing him and wanting to be with him again even though he is already entered a new relationship, something she pointed out at the beginning of the previous track. His intentions seem to be solely focused on the sexual aspect of what they had, based on Travis Scott saying that it was the only thing about her that stuck with him, and he tries to use the fact she slept with someone else while they were together and her lingering emotions to his benefit. Added the album version of the track (the single version is the one below) is an outro where she sings about searching for him because he promised fire sex before switching to the fact that there may be more emotion behind what she’s doing than she would care to admit. Again the vocals are solid from both SZA and Scott both of them coming with good tone and strong emotional connections to the content. Scott’s use of autotune for the bulk of his solo time is somewhat at odds with SZA’s more natural delivery and the more subdued nature of the production, but it doesn’t kill the song by any means. A solid track.
3. Doves In The Wind – The possible fourth single of the album (we’re not sure if it was an official drop or a leak that had this track circulating just hours before the album’s droptime), this track has SZA speaking on all the things that men will do to get pussy and how it’s the ones who are most unworthy of it that make the biggest deal about it. While it is pretty obvious that SZA is talking about getting beyond the sexual aspects of male/female relationship, she also seems to be connecting it to the theme to the previous track, wondering why she’s making such a big deal for the sexual gratification of a man that is willing to cheat on his partner when she could probably handle business better herself. The production on this track is still mid-tempo, but the switch-up in the overall sound without losing the instrumental cohesion is good step to keep listeners into the progression. Some of the production choices probably have to do with the addition of Kendrick Lamar to the track, who has a preference for certain type of throwback sample on the majority of his beats. And Lamar’s verse is a nice fit for the track as his verse takes on the same line of thinking as SZA, just from a male perspective. The jazzy delivery that SZA employs while still maintaining that pseudo-trap staccato is great (although when she her vocals out for the outro section of the track, it’s heavenly) really works with her voice and adds some sass to her usual tone. A solid track.
4. Drew Barrymore – The first single from the album, there is a clear sonic difference between this and the previous tracks. A little Sixpence None The Richer in tone, the songs has a bit of an alternative rock feel to it, but still fits in the with the overall sound of the album so far thanks to the similar instrumentation. Continuing on the same storyline, this time SZA is both upset that she can’t be comfortable enough alone to let go of her relationship with the ex while still wanting to give (and receive) the warmth and emotional connection that comes from their familiarity and lovemaking. We seem to have cycled back to some of the themes of the first track which, given the themes of Broken Clocks, might be intentional. The vocal delivery of SZA is switched up some to match the less trap&B beat while still having a flow that you realize has been present on all the tracks. Listening to the four songs back-to-back, you start to notice the similarity in her style more and more but, so far, the production and lyrics are keeping it from becoming monotonous. A solid track.
5. Prom – The almost Prince/Tear For Fears mashup-like beat comes out of nowhere and slaps you in the face the moment the track starts. It really is a whiplash moment considering how gentle and soothing the previous songs was and how there are not outro spoken words to separate them. That feeling only lasts a second though as you are almost immediately into the sound of this with its eighties throwback feel. SZA’s vocals do a full switch and step out of the holding pattern they’ve been in for the first verse, bridges, and chorus before settling back into it for the second verse. The lyrics seem to focus on the possibility that her lover is getting bored with her immature attitude, the fact that she seems to be wrapped up in him to the exclusion of everything else, and their relationship as a whole. She’s asking him to hold on just a little longer and she will become the kind of woman that he wants to be with, floating back into her insecurities once again. The biggest thing about this track is that if feels like it end abruptly, like it’s faded before SZA finished the third verse. You get the feeling she had more to say, but decided against it. It’s a weird ending but, despite that, this is a standout track for the album.
6. The Weekend – The production for this is so R&B that it causes another whiplash moment, but less so thanks to the fading of the previous track instead of the hard stop of Drew Barrymore. SZA jumps in and out of her flow pattern throughout the track and it works well, especially with the heavily melodic beat that she’s singing over. What stands out here are the harmonies; while they have been present on the other tracks, they haven’t been this overt before and it sounds so great. It gives such a great added dimension to what we expect from her voice that you hope this isn’t a one-time thing. This track has SZA excepting her sidechick status and making excuses to herself that he may belong to a someone else through the week, he’s hers alone for the weekend and that’s enough for her. The interesting comparison of “the other woman” to a 9-5 and her to a weekend is interesting; it implies a certain main chick status but also makes her sound boring and monotonous…like something you can’t wait to get way from to have some real fun. The simultaneous acknowledging of the situation while also throwing shade is superb as it embodies what most women think when a man cheats; that the other woman is more fun because she doesn’t share the same responsibilities in the man’s life as she does. The other thing she does in the song is slow, almost unnoticeably, ask for more time with him. She says she’s cool with just the weekend at first but then she says she wants Monday as well before also saying that maybe she could also have him Tuesday and Friday, giving her the majority of his time and switching the dynamic. While we wish the interlude hadn’t been included at the end as it breaks the mood some, this is a great song. A standout track.
7. Go Gina – When the beat drops for this track, you immediately nod your head. The beat puts it just slightly above the album’s steady mid-tempo pace, but not so much that it feels out of place in terms of cohesion. The more party-style beat is good fit for the track as this seems to have SZA stepping away from the man she’s been talking about this whole time because the secret is out and people are forming opinions about her. She seems to be doing what she said she would on Prom cultivating other interest besides him and making it known that she isn’t with anyone despite what rumors might be going around. It also seems like the shoe is on the other foot as she says that it’s becoming problematic for her to keep holding him down with everything that she had going on now, though she still enjoys being with him. The almost Caribbean delivery of her vocals is an odd fit for the track overall, but it doesn’t sound awful by any means. This falls back into that trap&B flow that she has been employing throughout, but the quicker pace seems to have made her add a little something extra. Worth a few listens.
8. Garden (Say It Like Dat) – The production of the previous track flows into this one effortlessly thanks to the change-up at the end that smoothed out the bass and slowed the pace. This steps out of the storyline that we have been following to this point, but it does still play into the same themes as SZA asks the man she loves to tell her that he loves her and wants her because she is feeling insecure. Everyone has been there in a relationship; you feel like all kinds of shit but the person you loves says that you are beautiful and the whole day can turn around. The interesting things is that, despite not being in sequence with everything so far, there is still this aspect of them hiding their relationship from other people because he’s with someone else. She asks him to hold [her] when nobody’s around [them], making their relationship something shameful, which still feeds her insecure nature. The vocals are starting to become less distinct in some ways. She still sounds good and there are moments in the track that have her really putting the emotion out there, but that same flow has reared its head again and you might find yourself focusing more on what she’s saying than how she’s saying it. Still a good track though and definitely worth several listens for the message alone.
9. Broken Clocks – The third single from the album, this seems to have us back on track with the storyline. SZA has to spend all of her time working now (this is tying into her life after she dropped out of college) to make ends meet and is not experiencing any joy in her life, except for the fact that there is someone out there who wants her and makes her feel good. It seems we were right about the broken clock being right twice a day analysis when this song came out because she has come back around wanting to be with this same man again, like it is the only good thing she has every been right about. The clocks also seem to be referring to the idea that she knows she can’t turn back time and go back to what they had, even if she wants to. The vocals come out of the fog on this one despite the flow in part because the production aids in forcing SZA to change things up to meet it. A standout track.
10. Anything – The songs are getting shorter as the album progresses, which is a good overall decision as too many long tracks can bog the progression down and make listeners want an escape. Despite the short runtime of songs like this and Go Gina, there is still a lot here, especially in terms of lyrics. Seeming to come to terms with the fact that this relationship is not going to become anything more than what it is, SZA decides to enjoy the ride while still trying to find her way in the world as an independent person. You are beginning to see the growth that she promised the man in question back on Prom and that growth is beginning to change her for the better in a lot of ways, most importantly, making her less dependent on him for her sense of self. The staccato delivery that she brings with her vocals is perfect for the production of the track, which is heavily driven by drums and has moments where everything just stops for a moment and comes back at a slightly off-beat place. At the end, when she asks him if is [knows] she’s alive, the choice to go a cappella makes it seems like it’s being said in her head. When the drums kick in, it sounds like the repetition of a nagging doubt; that this is not about her as much as it is about him and she could be anyone. It’s a turning point in the story and it is executed well. A solid track.
11. Wavy (Interlude) – Biggest complaint about this track is that it needs to be longer. The production here is delicious and just melts over you with a softness that you didn’t expect, especially considering the hard-hitting nature of the previous track. The addition of James Fauntleroy, however brief, is so nice and it begs to be expanded into something else where the two can play off one another more. SZA is back to her flow pattern, but the beat that the vocals from Fauntleroy help fill things out so that it’s not so noticeable. The meaning of this one seems to have the songstress looking for a way out of the relationship pattern she’s in with this man, and he (personified by Fauntleroy) seems to want the same. It just seems like they are both having trouble letting go. She acknowledges her insecurities again but, this time, it doesn’t seem to be enough of a reason to stay. He, on the other hand, seem to be showing more vulnerability, perhaps sharing that same insecure feelings. Despite the brief runtime, this is a standout track.
12. Normal Girl – The production for this one seems to have some doo-wop elements and it’s a nice combination with the previous track as well as nice variation for an album that has kept you guessing sonically in terms of the beat. This time she is admitting to all the things that she has seen as faults before and realizing that the man that she was interested in liked those aspects of her personality, making her wonder why she was trying to change for him. This is the moment that she not only owns her insecurities but also realizes that she is just like everyone else, with things about herself that she wishes should could change but also things that aren’t perfect and she likes just fine. You also hear here vow to step away from him and forget about him once and for all now that she seems to have found a path that wants to follow in life. SZA gets a little more melodic in her tone on this one and it sounds good, especially against the somewhat subdued beat and the more flushed-out harmonies. There is a lot of confidence in her tone and we seem to be hearing from someone different than the earlier track, someone who has grown up and started to accept herself. A standout track.
13. Pretty Little Birds – The metaphor on this one is amazing. Describing herself as a bird that has been battered by aspects of life and some of the decisions she’s made, but she’s come out stronger on the other side and found herself anew. She then turns her gaze outward towards a man that is willing to try just as hard for her as she has for the one she loved in the past. Her voice is so sweet here that you almost don’t realize this is the same woman. She is being gentle with herself and finding that love from herself is pretty nice as well. Isaiah Rashad’s verse is an odd fit for the sound of the track at first, given that there have motes of jazz from the beginning but that SZA had just finished scatting for us. Eventually you adjust to the more gruff sound and your realize that he’s talking about his own downfall and that his trails have left him more battered and bruised than her. It’s somewhat unclear if this section falls into the story that we’ve been following and that Rashad is meant to be the man that she had been involved with all this time of if this is a new love that has come into her life who has similar experience. Either way, it works a closer for this saga and you could see these two flying away together, the dynamic between them in a more stable place than what she had before. A solid track.
14. 20 Something – An epilogue for the overall album, this track with is mainly acoustic guitar production is much more somber than anything that has come before due entirely to the content. SZA leaves us on a down note saying that, at this point in her life she’s running from love and has yet to achieve the heights that she wanted. There seems to be a fear of ending up alone again in lines, but there also seems to be a fear that she will slip back into old habits and all that she has gained will be lost. It shows that she has learned something from her experiences and that will keep her grounded in a way that the relationship of the past could not. The way her voice sounds on this is good, but there are moments when you can tell she reached a little out of range. Tracks like this tend to show the holes in someone’s singing ability, be she fairs well for the majority of the track. Worth a few listens.
The material in this album isn’t exactly new from SZA; she’s always spoken on love and loss and how relationships shape the lives of the people in them. What’s different is that the perspective has changed somewhat. There is an explicit statement about how our insecurities play into the situations and relationships we find ourselves in and that an inability to acknowledge and correct leads to the same behavior being repeated over and over again. It’s a remarkably self-aware statement to make and underscores the necessity of being comfortable with oneself before trying to add someone else to the mix.
The less dense lyrical content that was shown on the singles is a theme here, but less dense doesn’t mean simplistic. There is a lot of meaning packed into the lines she says, giving you that same two levels of thinking that you got from her first album but making the first level a little easier to decipher. You can see this entire album as the story of a sidechick who is trying to justify and take over the spot of another woman or you can dig deeper and see it is the story of a woman who begins to understand there is more than one way to be lonely and that being with someone isn’t enough to “fix” you. Where this album steps above the last one is in terms of the vocals and production, which is much more cohesive and sound so much better when playing it back to back. SZA brings power to her tone while realizing that less is sometimes more when it comes to beat. While that same flow that she uses when she slips into the more trap sections of the songs can begin to wear thin after a while, the variation that is there is enough to keep you engaged. The three components together show a complex evolution of understanding her craft that some artists either refuse or are incapable of making.
We’re going to enjoy this for a long time and are eager to see where she is in three years…when she releases the next one.