Tuesday, June 13, 2017

SZA - CTRL Review

Thanks to social media and a progressive generation that fails to back down, wide-spread movements such as feminism have gained serious momentum with how women, and men, perceive themselves in today's society. Leading, or following, that ideology are countless Pop and R&B singers, from Beyonce to FKA Twigs, Rihanna to Lana Del Rey. These commanding figures have learned the power they bestow, not only over the opposite gender when it comes to sex, but the youth who take their messages to heart. One such artist in this wave is SZA, known primarily as the sole female act on TDE's record label. A label, mind you, that's been known to support artists with jaded beliefs of gender equality. To say SZA's debut album bucking the trend of her single-letter EP's to CTRL is insignificant would be a foolish thought. Quite the contrary, as the calculated decision to latch onto the strong feminine archetype is something displayed prominently throughout CTRL. And while SZA's undoubtedly in control of her body, her destiny, and herself, a message that's necessary regardless of the quality intact, the musical decisions and inadequacies scattered throughout CTRL cause the promising R&B singer to feel like nothing more than a bullet point meant to service a larger goal.

As with damn near every R&B album ever made, the primary recipe is that of romance. CTRL flaunts this, and then some, spending copious amounts of time relishing in the past, present, and future of her various relationships. CTRL finds SZA reflecting inwards on the mistakes she's made, like on 'Prom' or '20 Something,' while simultaneously projecting outwards a new and improved version of herself, like on 'Supermodel' or 'Broken Clocks,' where sleazy men holding her back are no longer part of the equation. There's even a moment on 'Doves In The Wind' where SZA imagines a world where Jenny accepts Forrest Gump's love rather than rejecting it, under the premise that he was a nice guy who "never even pushed for the pussy." However, much like her TDE counterparts, SZA takes part in some hypocrisy for being quite 'ratchet' herself, as those that partake in mischievous sexual rendezvous would say. 'Supermodel,' 'Garden,' and 'The Weekend' all find SZA either cheating directly or helping a man do so. On 'The Weekend' in particular, SZA glorifies the act while praising herself for being a capable side piece. In a weird way the shamelessness is appreciated, considering how much SZA adores being in control.

These relational inconsistencies, for those like SZA, are just apart of life, and the fact her failures share the same space on CTRL as those of her significant others' is a welcomed change. R&B albums foretelling doomsday in a relationship typically squander their chance at poignancy by failing to elaborate on both sides of the equation, blaming everything on the opposing side while limiting criticism on yours. SZA's acknowledgement of her actions is refreshing, to say the least. Unfortunately, apart from a few enjoyable tracks like 'Drew Barrymore' and 'Doves In The Wind,' that's where the compliments stop. For starters, SZA's control over CTRL turns into a necessary evil when the spotlight shines on her vocals, something she has a tenuous grasp on. Right from the get-go, with the minimal ballad 'Supermodel,' SZA's cracked vocals turn irritable at every forced inflection, deviating in tone, clarity, and purity like an erratic heartbeat. Combine this with her attempts at being an overly audacious crooner, comparable to Christina Aguilera ('20 Something') or Katy Perry ('Prom'), while retaining her street-wise style, and you've got an album that's, more often than not, hard on the ears.

As far as the production goes, nothing strays too far from the norm. For the bulk of CTRL, apart from the strange detour at the tail-end of 'The Weekend' (which I love), the beats quiver in fear of being anything but rudimentary Alternative R&B. Surprisingly, given a look at the producers, no beat is noticeably bad. I say surprising because the names typically associated with TDE are nowhere to be found, a sore sight for those expecting equality. But nonetheless, the competency is there, with the right blend of sensual aura and slow-moving aquatics. 'Drew Barrymore' and 'Pretty Little Birds' are solid examples of this, with the former acting as a seat-by-the-fire relaxer while the latter eases into a warm bubble bath. But that only applies to noticeable songs, the murk in the middle breezes by without so much of a grasp at the auditory cortex. 'Prom' is far too on-the-nose when it comes to cheesy teen Pop, while tracks like 'Love Galore' or 'Normal Girl' make no effort to distance themselves from the overcrowded pool of Alternative R&B/Cloud Rap crossovers. The former finds Travis Scott continuing his hot streak of disappointments, with some laughably placed ad-libs ("last time I checked you were the one that left me in a rut, YAH, in a mess, YAH YAH").

Thankfully, both Kendrick Lamar on 'Doves In The Wind' and Isaiah Rashad on 'Pretty Little Birds' flourish in their appearances, the former staying conceptually focused on the vagina, the latter fitting the ultra-Southern drawl. Overall, the limited features on CTRL prove that SZA's in control. Each feature is pinpointed to their role and, success or failure, fit into the fabric of their respective song. Surprisingly, given my trepidations over a SZA-led album, the pacing and length of CTRL never feels superfluous, existing as a safe piece of work that doesn't ask much on behalf of the listener. Granted, that's not necessarily a compliment for a debut LP, but with the type of content we're given here, any more would've been detrimental. There's only so much teenage melodrama shoe-horned into a '20 Something' who hasn't yet matured that I can take. Hopefully the writing of CTRL will correct that, as the album's personal touch feels both valuable to those undergoing the same drama and SZA herself. Someone who finds pleasure in uncertainty and the risks of promiscuity could use a little control in their life. For SZA, bearing her background was a good first step. The music, however, could use some work.

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