For a while there, it seemed like SZA would never release Ctrl. The singer-songwriter (and sole R&B act on TDE, which also houses Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, and Isaiah Rashad) had released three brief but rich records: 2012’s See.SZA.Run, 2013’s S, and 2014’s Z. These were gauzy, atmospheric affairs, snapping to attention around individual samples or turns of phrase, as impressive as they were allusive. She hinted that her next record—dubbed, naturally, A—would be her last, but 2015 came and went with no release. Late last year, she tweeted, in apparent exhaustion with years of behind-the-scenes bullshit, “I actually quit. (TDE president Punch Henderson) can release my album if he ever feels like it. Y’all be blessed.” The tweet has since been deleted.
But then, all of a sudden this spring, the record was back, with a release date, a new title, and an extremely RZA-like video of the Wu-Tang majordomo introducing the album for her, thus fulfilling the destiny she made when she took the Wu-like name for herself way back in the early 2010s. An album that had seemed to have dissolved as a mere unfulfilled promise was now a certainty.
Better yet: It was worth the wait. Ctrl is one of the best R&B albums of 2017, and it would’ve been one of the best in 2015 or 2016, too. It’s clear in the opening moments that it’s not merely a continuation of SZA’s previous records but an evolution; no longer is she hiding in the reverb behind dense swirls of ambient synthesizers and immaculately suggestive samples. Instead, from the album’s opening moments, she reveals herself to be a vocalist of startling confidence and emotional range. Opener “Supermodel” features more vocal pyrotechnics than in all three of her previous albums combined, a three-minute sketch of minimalist, muffled guitar strums that sets an unadorned stage for SZA to hit a clarion high note while dissing her ex-dude’s new girl. From there, she dives into unfussy self-reflection—“Why you in Vegas all up on Valentine’s Day? / Why am I so easy to forget like that?”—and confesses, “Let me tell you a secret: I been banging your homeboy.” Previous records felt like a look-book, an exercise in curation. This is something else.
The album cycles through moods easily, folding into each other like scenes in an elliptically edited film. (SZA has hinted at a career in film following Ctrl; many of her tracks are initially named after the actresses they remind her of.) “Supermodel” details a relationship’s disintegration while remembering its lingering core (“I could be your supermodel if you believe / If you see it in me”) while “Anything” resolves with the fluttering incantation, “Do you even know I’m alive?” She zeroes in on a collage of relationships in distinctly modern states of disarray, dodging starry-eyed romance or emo despair in favor of comic specificity (“High key, your dick is weak, buddy”) and music full of fluorescent tones and crisp, rounded drums.
While the songs follow traditional structures, their sounds bloom in remarkable, unexpected ways. SZA has said she spent the years while Ctrl was in limbo honing her conception of how to make an album with artists like Thundercat; Tyler, The Creator; Rick Rubin; and Frank Ocean, any of whom you could spot as an influence on a given track. During that time, she also wrote Rihanna’s “Consideration” and the Beyoncé-Nicki Minaj collab “Feeling Myself.” You can hear the way these experiences allow her to gain control of Ctrl, serving as its star rather than merely its host. While it’d be tempting to draw comparisons to this year’s other great R&B record, Sampha’s Process, or last year’s, Solange’s A Seat At The Table, Ctrl’s ability to function as a star turn while remaining funny, easygoing, and sonically restless recalls no one so much as her TDE labelmate Isaiah Rashad, whose Sun’s Tirade has proven to be one of 2016’s most enduring pleasures.
Rashad shows up for a vaporous turn toward the album’s close, when the whole thing’s drifting skyward like the last smoke of a beachside bonfire. Kendrick stops by, too, for the best verse in his post-Damn era (though who knows when it was actually recorded). Unlike a lot of other rap labels, there isn’t a clear-cut “house style” at TDE; Ab-Soul’s liable to spit over anything he touches, and Kendrick has cycled through Compton bump, ATLien funk, conscious jazz-rap, and more. The through-line appears, instead, to be a willingness to let artists gradually clarify their own vision, an agnosticism that has resulted in three great records in the past year alone.
SZA still represents the cliché of a female songstress on a label with a gaggle of rappers, but TDE’s end results are different than that would imply. Ctrl is as tough as Damn is tender, and it knocks as hard as The Sun’s Tirade swoons. It’s weirder than any of them, and maybe funnier, too. Here’s hoping she doesn’t make good on that promise to quit just yet—Ctrl sounds like she’s just getting started.