Aren’t the twenties great? All the horrible anxieties you had as a teenager gone, with the realisation they weren’t all that bad; the knowledge that life now is much scarier, and the world much bigger, than you ever thought it was; thinking you found your identity in your adolescence, only to start believing you aren’t really complete unless you find someone else; and, of course, the horrors of leaving university, all your friends moving away, getting a real job with actual responsibility, the prospect of moving out, and the knowledge that if your relationship fucks up now, it’s going to hurt more than it did when you were fifteen. All these fears, these quarter-life anxieties, have been rather candidly captured in SZA’s latest effort, Ctrl.
SZA’s music has been variously described as neosoul, trap, R&B, chillwave and cloud rap (whatever the hell that is). Ctrl evidences why her music is so hard to pin down: if all the best beats from Frank Ocean’s last two albums had been conglomerated into a single, cohesive effort, the singer had been tutored by Ella Fitzgerald, and the producers had been listening to J Lo and Mary J. Blige on repeat, it might sound something like this record. Psychedelic in a stoner sort of way, Ctrl rolls along at a steady pace, the songs flowing over one another, mixing and merging until they become nearly indiscernible from one another—but in a nice way.
Take ‘Doves in the Wind’, the production on which has been elegantly handled by Cam O’bi and sounds like it came straight off an XXYYXX album. Swirling background synths, along with the synthetic rustling of vinyl cracker, gives the song a distinctly heady atmosphere. And despite Kendrick Lamar’s faintly disappointing feature, SZA is saying something real about her sexuality and about sex in general: that ‘pussy’ should be something to be respected and revered, rather than made trivial and easy. (This theme harks back to Kendrick Lamar‘s ‘For Free?’ from the seminal 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, albeit turning it on its head.)
Of course, this isn’t all about sex: she also discusses, in vivid detail, her own insecurities, simultaneously calling out those of almost every twenty-something ever. ‘Supermodel’ begins with the rather overplayed trope of her mother discussing what control means, and how it affects her life; Solána’s mother features throughout the album, much like Lamar’s did on good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Her own personal anxieties are evident from her declaration that she could be a supermodel, if only her partner would believe she is. Or how about the lines ‘Wish I was comfortable just with myself’, or ‘Leave me lonely for prettier women’? The whole track, and indeed most of the album, is an exercise in putting personal anxieties on display and trying to come to terms with them.
These inner fears are apparent on almost every track on the album, whether she’s wishing she wasn’t just the weekend girl on ‘Weekend’, hoping her man doesn’t find out who she really is on ‘Garden (Say It Like Dat)’, contradicting herself over whether she still loves her former partner on ‘Broken Clocks’, wondering if she’d be ‘perfect in a new dimension’ on ‘Anything’ or wishing she was something else (a normal girl) on ‘Normal Girl’. Rather than sounding anxious, though, the music and SZA’s sweet, melismatic vocals lace each song with a sense of melancholy. In her voice, the tragic histories of Billie Holiday, Amy Winehouse, Dusty Springfield and all those other doomed jazz and soul singers play out.
The album isn’t perfect. ‘Prom’ has been described by some publications as the best song on the album, but it’s most certainly one of the worst; in terms of an innocuous, commercial song, it’s unrivalled on the rest of the record. ‘Drew Barrymore’, though praised by the eponymous actress (the song was inspired by two of Barrymore’s films from the nineties, Never Been Kissed and Poison Ivy), also doesn’t add much to the album musically, though SZA’s metaphorical ‘Warm enough for you inside me?’ is a conniving dig at male attitudes towards sex, and is congruous with the themes of sex and love that run throughout.
The best two tracks on this record are the last two. The jazzy horns on ‘Pretty Little Birds’, a sprawling love song, puts it firmly in a recent trend of overtly jazz-inspired hip hop and R&B. SZA’s poetry (‘You are but a phoenix among feathers/You’re broken by the waves among the sea’), ambiguous among a cohort of straightforward lyrics on the rest of the album, tells the story of a damaged woman not giving up; and Isaiah Rashad’s feature, sufficiently enigmatic, adds some nice variation as the beat changes.
SZA has summed up the fears and anxieties of plenty twenty-year-olds on this record, and no more so than on the aptly titled ’20 Something’, a perfect closer and a track that pits SZA’s soaring voice against just a guitar, a nice change from the woozy beats that have littered the majority of the album and a return to the opener. She talks to all those scared youngins, touching on the anxieties people feel in their twenties—losing friends, being alone, being too scared to commit, life coming on too quickly and of course, pining after a lost lover. Another artist might not have been able to make this track into anything other than a pop ballad, but SZA’s voice is so powerful that even the facile fears everyone feels at twenty-something seem terrifying. At the same time, her voice—and the recording of her mother, which completes her thoughts on control and concludes the album—are comforting.
In the end, there’s not much we can do wrong in our twenties. Lovers will come and go, jobs will fall through, and the things that terrify us now will seem silly in just a few years. This knowledge doesn’t make it any less scary while we live these years, but there’s always someone else going through the same thing. SZA has managed to sum up all these fears in beautiful form in Ctrl, aided by some excellent production and her magnificent voice. All we can hope is that our twenty-somethings don’t kill us—and they won’t.