SZA's CTRL: The Best R&B of 2017

If you haven't heard SZA sing, run over to the record store and give her album CTRL a spin. Soon enough, you'll discover that she's created the freshest album in R&B since Solange's 2016 masterpiece A Seat at the Table, which I wrote about here. While Solange's masterpiece focused on playing the long game, with drawn-out beats, lingering baselines, and vocal meditations that looked deep into the past, in many ways, SZA is the complete opposite. Her music is fresh. Immediate. Emotions? Raw. She's even sometimes crude. The world that makes up her songs is entirely relatable and real. She ponders work, being late to work, eating tacos, obsessing over TV shows, jealousy, emotional insecurity, carnal pleasures, sadness, joy, Las Vegas, New Jersey,  and everything else in between. In other words, it covers the same terrain the Bible does. As Cat Power once said, "and I'm not kidding". A few key songs:

"Supermodel" is drenched in self-affirmation and crippling insecurity in equal parts. Written as a letter to a former partner, here we find SZA taking revenge, imagining her ex's new life, and revealing the parts of her that are buried deep- (that she still wants to be with 'em). The strummed guitar that comes to the surface sounds like it is from outer space, a few beats behind, but it's melodic and lays the template for the song to move along. Well-placed smashes on the snare and cymbals give the chorus a little extra emotional punch- not that any more is needed: when SZA sings "for temporary love. . .you were a temporary lover" the song hits an emotional apex that is hard to define, other than you should know it constitutes great art of the highest order. Pslam 34 indicates that the Lord is "near to the brokenhearted" and will help "soothe their crushed spirit". The Lord must've been near SZA, here- working through the music, too. It's both soothing and powerful.

"Drew Barrymore" finds SZA on the couch, tacos, friends, and television in tow. An organ grinds it out, laying the groundwork for an epic chorus- "is it warm enough for ya?". SZA wants to know if she's good enough. She lays down her inner thoughts- as raw as they are- and wonders if she is attractive enough, "ladylike", and if she shaves her legs enough. If that part made you uncomfortable, good. You're gettin' to know SZA! She's honest. Psalm 24 exalts the beauty of honesty. This song is beautiful. And honest.

"Go Gina"  combines SZA's self-awareness with a catchphrase from the old 90's sitcom Martin (damn Gina!). If anything, "Go Gina" is evidence of all of SZA's strengths as an artist: she's got a great backing band that hits all the right spots, keys, bass and all, and is able to string it all together with pop culture references and self-reflection. Go SZA. "To be clean. To be real", SZA sings. Hebrews 10 suggests we wash our consciousness in pure water. That's exactly the type of raw consciousness, immediacy, and honesty SZA is after. Plus, this song rests easy. It always knows where it's going, it's groovy, flawless, effortless. . .

"Broken Clocks" is probably my favorite song on CTRL. Here, the band is in full swing- they're lively and fresh, immediate, not trying to do too much. SZA meditates on relationships and their ability to alter one's sense of time. She's late to work again. She's had enough of dirty shoes? Yes, she's been conditioned to expect less. This time, however, she's after more. Taking it day by day. This "day to day" idea of approaching life in increments (doing the next right thing) recalls II Corinthians chapter 4: we're being inwardly renewed day by day. We're working out our salvation (Phillipains 2:12). Our wholeness. In CTRL, that is exactly what SZA is doing, even if it is sometimes crude or off-putting- it is entirely human.

That's just a sampling of CTRL. By the way, what an apt title: life is sometimes about learning to control what you can, and not worrying about what you can't. Of course, our emotions might dispute that truth. But that's why we have music.

SZA plays tonight in New Haven (at Toad's place). It's sold out. If you've got a ticket, let me know.

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