SZA returns with a more confident sophomore album

SZA performing at 2015’s AfroPunk Festival.

Photo courrtesy of fuseboxradio via wikimedia commons (originally from flickr)

SZA performing at 2015’s AfroPunk Festival.

Steven Le, Staff Writer

Neo-soul singer SZA’s last effort Z, was one of 2014’s most underwhelming albums. This record took an approach on alternative R&B and art pop that was incredibly unengaging and weak. It was full of half-baked concepts that I didn’t like. Even the features from great artists were disappointing as well. However, the singles SZA has dropped prior to this album have shown a considerable change in sound that I have enjoyed. And now that the album, titled CTRL is here, it’s not a completely revolutionary sound that has launched SZA into one of R&B’s finest, but it’s a noticeable improvement.

The second single released for this album, “Love Galore” featuring Travis Scott is a fantastic song that I’ve been enjoying nonstop for a month now. I love the minimalistic pop/R&B sound SZA goes for in this song, especially the swelling synthesizers that appear in the middle of a couple of the verses. And the Travis Scott feature fits in very well. For somebody who can’t sing, he does have a great grasp of melody making. I love him as a rapper/autotune crooner, but I also enjoy what he brings to his features on pop tracks. But what I love most about this track are SZA’s vocals. Last LP, her great voice was masked by reverb heavy, cavernous, bland production. Her vocals were really breathy as well. But on this track, her voice is clear, and her delivery is sassy and it sounds very fitting for the lyrics she sings. The other singles released, “Drew Barrymore” and “Broken Clocks” have a similar vibe but just aren’t as punchy and instantaneous as “Love Galore”. The latter does have a pretty great instrumental though, with all these swelling vocals laced in with consistent, punchy high hats. However, all showed SZA going in a direction that doesn’t try too hard to be artsy with the instrumentals and actually showcases her voice.

However, when I heard the first couple seconds of this record, my heart sank. “Supermodel” features these low fi guitars that I just can’t stand. I thought to myself “Oh no, is she trying to make an indie record.” However, the song does get a bit better as it progresses, with additional musical layers making the leading guitars more bearable. SZA also does give one of her better vocal performances on this track as well. The lo-fi theme does carry over into the rest of the tracks a bit in the form of vinyl crackling effects subtly mixed in. “Love Galore” came right after though, so I was able to enjoy that song again through my first listen of this record. The next track, “Doves in The Wind”, also features a rapper, Kendrick Lamar. And oh boy do I hate it. I really wanted to like this track, I really did. I love Kendrick Lamar, I think he’s a really talented rapper, but usually he just sounds pretty awful over anything that isn’t some sort of a hip hop beat. Take Maroon 5’s “Don’t Wanna Know” or Sia’s “The Greatest” for example. The really airy, atmospheric track is full of these really inappropriate lyrics, which I usually don’t mind at all, but this track kind of made me cringe. It went for sexy and sensual, but ended up as uncomfortable and awkward. And Lamar’s feature is passionate and eccentric, but there is literally zero chemistry between SZA and Lamar, which is shocking considering they’re labelmates. SZA’s verse just fades out, Kendrick comes in out of nowhere. This track shows that SZA hasn’t completely given up her old sound, and it doesn’t sound good.

Although there are a couple of really low points on this album, there’s good parts. The song “Prom” is a pretty fantastic pop song. I love the watery instrumental and this song features one of the best hooks on the album. The driving, simple bass line sounds a lot like something off a record from the XX. And right after, SZA comes through with “The Weekend”, a great, vintage sounding slow jam song. I love the powerful, punchy, pitched vocals before the chorus’, the great instrumental buildup in the first minute, and the very strange chant that appears at the end of the song, a concept that appears on a few tracks. But aside from these, there aren’t that many bright spots.

Instrumentally, this album is also full of highs and lows. I really like  the toned down sounds that appear on a fair amount of tracks, I think SZA should keep going in this direction, but the instrumentation on  this album is pretty messy at times. The really distorted, heavy 808’s bass that appear on songs like “Garden (Say it Like Dat)” and “Anything” sound really out of place. Another interesting spot was the really skeletal clean electric guitar ballad “20 Something” that ends off the album. But overall, the instrumentation has improved from Z with more mainstream, but more bearable tunes.

Lyrically, this album is pretty pleasing. SZA is not only confident in her vocals, her lyrics also spew confidence on a couple of tracks. Even when she is speaking of submission to her lover, she still sounds like she runs the show. There’s a lot of self love on this record, like on “Supermodel”, where SZA accepts her flaws, but also is completely fine with them. On “Garden (Say it Like Dat)”, she sings of how her lover makes her feel better about her insecurities, and I love the sunny positivity of this song’s lyrics, even if I’m not enamored with the tune. The lyrics are pretty straight to the point, unlike the pretentiously deep riddles of Z. She brings some interesting themes to the table. On “The Weekend”, SZA sings from the perspective of a girl that knows she’s the side woman, and is completely fine with it, as long as she gets to satisfy her man on the weekend. This is a perspective that female singers usually don’t sing from, and it’s pretty refreshing, along with a lot of the personality and sassiness SZA brings to the table.

I see this album as more of a stepping stone to a formula that will consistently work for SZA rather than an artist coming into her own. Although I don’t think it’s a great album, there are definitely things to like about this album. There are lows, especially in the second half, but definitely highs as well. And overall, it was a slightly enjoyable album, and an improvement from SZA’s debut album. Because of this, I give this album a 6/10.  My favorite tracks are “Love Galore”, “Prom”, and “The Weekend”. My least favorite track is “Doves in the Wind”.