SZA shines on ‘CTRL,’ despite conflicting messages in the lyrical content
If you’ve been keeping track of Top Dawg Entertainment, the record label behind hip-hop heavyweights like Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q, you’re probably familiar with SZA by now.
SZA, real name Solána Imani Rowe, is the sultry, raspy-voiced singer who’s been featured on a variety of hip-hop artists’ projects — ranging from her TDE label-mates to Travis Scott and Rihanna — and also a series of her own EPs.
Now, SZA has released her first full length album, “CTRL,” and she seems to be dedicated to subverting the traditional misogynistic view of women found in many contemporary hip-hop lyrics. But in a weird way, in a few spots, she ends up subtly supporting those conventional hip-hop views.
Most of this comes from the frankly unhealthy sorts of relationships that SZA discusses throughout the album.
It starts early. In the opening track, “Supermodel,” SZA discusses her way of getting back at a previous boyfriend, who abandoned her on Valentine’s Day: She says “I been secretly banging your homeboy.” People react incredulously to this, saying “Oh no she didn’t,” to which she coolly responds “Oh, yes I did … I’ll do it again.”
Later on in the track list, in the song “The Weekend,” SZA seems to take on an opposite role, this time as the archetypal “other woman.” In the song, SZA speaks to a man, who spends the majority of the week with one woman. But she tells him that, on the weekend, “I don’t care long as you’re here by 10:30 / No later than, drop them drawers.”
These attitudes seem incongruous with other ones shared on the album, especially in the track “Doves in the Wind,” which is a round-about sort of tribute to women.
SZA and featured artist Kendrick Lamar suggest a supremacy of women over men (with, admittedly, typically crass hip-hop style), as Lamar raps, “How many times she gotta tell you that d**k is disposable,” with SZA responding “You could never trivialize p***y.”
Even though the song reduces men and women to their respective genitalia, “Doves in the Wind” does have a sort of feminist message, in that women are not to be “trivialized.”
So, if that’s the case, why is SZA okay with playing into common, negative hip-hop tropes of women? In “Supermodel,” she depicts herself as the scheming manipulative woman of many hip-hop songs, while on “The Weekend,” she could easily be seen as the shrinking type who is willing to accept being treated as the other woman.
For someone who seems only sarcastically apologetic when she says she’s sorry for not being ladylike or shaving her legs on the track “Drew Barrymore,” it doesn’t seem to make much sense, and the incongruity isn’t dealt with. The listener just has to accept it.
But, besides some confusing lyrics with regards to feminism, SZA has made something interesting here. Her voice is nothing short of beautiful, and “CTRL” is perfect for fans of the alternative R&B sound popularized by Frank Ocean and others.
SZA is cool and laid-back, approaching everything with a frank, matter-of-fact attitude that is incredibly compelling to listen to. Her singing has a lilt to it, varying between more sustained notes and a quick staccato flow that almost approaches something more similar to a rap.
Speaking of rappers, there are a few of them featured here, most notably Travis Scott and the previously-mentioned Kendrick Lamar.
Travis Scott brings life to “Love Galore,” an otherwise sleepy track, where Scott takes on the persona of a jilted former lover of SZA’s who she’s reaching out to again. His verse adds an element of the tragic, as he recalls the good times, but he bookends his verse by repeatedly asking “Why you bother me?”
By contrast, Kendrick Lamar delivers a surprisingly clumsy verse on “Doves in the Wind.” Kendrick has never sounded as corny as he does when he says “N***as’ll lose they mind for it, wine for it, dine for it: p***y / Spend time for it, see no colored line for it: p***y!” It sounds so gleeful that he sounds more like a 12-year-old boy infatuated with sex.
But SZA’s voice sores past some fumbling lyrics and above the beautifully jazzy instrumentation to make something that is worth listening to anyway.
SZA’s style could easily cause her to be compared to a female Frank Ocean, and that’s something that I’m excited to hear more of.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6119 or on Twitter @PatKernan
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment, RCA Records
Best Track: ‘Love Galore’
Worst Track: ‘Doves in the Wind’