This is my favorite song right now:
JANAE: Why’s it called Drew Barrymore?
ME: Beats me, except she makes a cameo near the end of the video.
Listen, you know I love me a messy girl with big hair and and even bigger voice. If this were 2002 and I saw SZA’s debut album (there’s also an EP from last year) amongst the new releases at the FYE that used to be at the University Park Mall in Mishawaka, Indiana, I’d have bought just simply for the cover art. I’m totally here for streaming music services like Spotify and Apple Music (I subscribe to both, because I like to throw my money way) because it’s super fucking convenient to just have the complete discography of Mariah Carey always at my immediate disposal, and really, the $23 or whatever it is those two subscriptions cost me per month is pocket change compared to the hundreds of dollars I used to spend on compact discs each month. Still, some of my favorite albums of all time are ones I discovered by accident, purchased on a whim because I happened to see the CD on a rack at some record store and responded in some way to the cover. But I haven’t bought a CD in a years.
As it happens, I first heard SZA on Rihanna’s Consideration, the opener of her 2016 album Anti. The song, co-written by and featuring SZA, has all the spunk, sass, and cunning lyricism she pushes to even more gratifying extremes on CTRL. Most easily classified within that burgeoning sub-genre of music known as “alt-R&B” (which I think means R&B that ostensibly “hip” white kids have decided is cool, re: Frank Ocean, The Weeknd), CTRL in fact resists labels and categorizations without quite eschewing them completely. There are, certainly, heavy elements of R&B throughout; inspirations from hip-hop are also prevalent, and there are strong whiffs of soul jazz, indie rock, and mass-appeal, radio-friendly contemporary pop. (A girl I know who has absolutely zero taste in anything, hearing Love Galore for the first time, pronounced it, “A really good song.” She’s not wrong — it’s a slick, sexy jam that contains some of the album’s baddest and most innovative lyrics, but it’s minimalist production is firmly rooted in the now.) It’s this perfect (if unruly) combination of influences that make CTRL such a pleasure. It’s specific and unique, happy to suggest all sorts of identification yet refusing to pick just one.
On the album’s inaugural track, Supermodel, SZA sings over a grungy electric guitar about, according to the Genius-powered “Behind The Lyrics” function on Spotify, “an ex-boyfriend who did her wrong.” Her vocal delivery here (and elsewhere on the album) evokes songstresses like Amy Winehouse or Macy Gray with hints of Lauryn Hill and Nicki Minaj. “I could be your supermodel if you believe,” SZA sings on the hook, “If you see it in me, see it in me, see it in me.” Its poignant, somber sentiment is juxtaposed against the graphic aggression of the verse, in which she declares, “I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy” and taunts her estranged lover with, “How am I so easy to forget like that/It can be that easy for you to get like that.” Here and elsewhere on CTRL, SZA reveals herself straddling the delicate balance between the fast-talking, smart-mouthed bad chick who’s down for revenge sex and sharing dudes on “The Weekend,” and the one whose loneliness might push to put up with the bullshit. The way SZA fuses these apparent contradictions together with such grace, cohesion, whimsy, and cool, reveals a creative mind as messy and exciting as the album itself, and I’m here for it.
What these tensions apparent contradictions reveal is the mutifaceted nature of a personality, the textured quality of existence. SZA knows herself; she’s in her own head, rhyming about the Netflix series Narcos –her penchant, as she sings on “—” for “dirty boys,”