After a series of mixtapes unleashed between 2012 and 2014—plus scene-stealing guest appearances on tracks by Rihanna, Schoolboy Q and Isaiah Rashad—expectations were sky-high for Ctrl, the debut studio album from SZA. When the delayed work finally arrived in early June, those expectations were exceeded; the 26-year-old artist goes above and beyond with a genre-defying collection of deeply personal songs not easily compared to the work of would-be R&B peers.
As the sole woman on the Top Dawg label, the singer and songwriter was guaranteed to drop an album with a hip-hop edge, but that’s just one of the many brushstrokes SZA uses to compose a raw, honest self-portrait.
The slinky, tropical groove “Love Galore,” which she performed at the recent BET Awards, sets a laid-back tone, while “Drew Barrymore” sounds more like a Lilith Fair-era alt-rock meditation on the roller coaster ride of relationships. “Prom” is a wistful indie-electro gem, another track demonstrating SZA’s ability to blend catchy melodies and hooks with emotional lyrics. “Garden (Say It Like Dat)” will make your head nod until you listen to the almost unbearably sweet and vulnerable lyrics: “Hope you never find out who I really am/’Cause you’ll never love me/But I believe you when you say it like that.”
The only sensible comparison for Ctrl might be Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, similarly tossed into the modern R&B category when both records simply have too many adventurous, emotional sounds. Las Vegas will get to see SZA’s skills for itself when her Ctrl Tour lands at Vinyl at the Hard Rock Hotel on September 8.