SZA's Ctrl: From Meh To Amazing
Cover Art: Sophie Cheng
Reviewing an album released in 2017--especially an album as world-changing and beautiful as Ctrl, SZA’s debut studio album--feels like an incredibly risky move. Sadly, I only got around to listening to this masterpiece of an album a few months ago. One thing for sure is that ever since I listened to Ctrl, at the time only half-committed to listening to the entire album to see exactly what the hype was all about, I haven’t stopped. With the perfect blend of R&B and neo-soul, the slow-paced, dreamy vibes each track embodies but in its own lyrically-fresh and unique way, all complemented by SZA’s disastrously beautiful vocals, the album has swiftly earned itself a well-deserved spot in my list of favorite albums of all time. Sadly, Miss Rowe seems to have pulled a Rihanna and dropped one of the greatest albums of her career--in this case, the ONLY album of her career--then promptly dipped, only resurfacing for a few features or singles here and there in the past three years. Nevertheless, I will make an effort at ranking the songs on Ctrl for any curious listeners out there, dying to know which songs I think are the best off of the album. Here are all 14 songs on Ctrl, ranked in order of how often I listen to them from least to most. Just to preface this ranking, the top 6 or 7-ish are extremely interchangeable (even to me, and I’m making this ranking!) depending on my mood at the time of listening, but they’re all absolutely amazing anyways, so it doesn’t really matter much in the end, does it?
14. Wavy (Interlude) (feat. James Fauntleroy)
Not bad, but, as the title of the song indicates, it’s an interlude. The mixture of Fauntleroy’s nasal but smooth and rich voice with SZA’s sounds like pure heaven, and it’s both a beautiful track and well-placed interlude within the album, but my only complaint would be how short it is. Why give us only 1:16 of a potential banger when we could’ve gotten a whole single? Wasted potential, in my opinion, which is sadly why it landed here, all the way at the bottom of the list.
13. Normal Girl
Normal Girl is, for a lack of better words, slightly boring to me. It’s primarily carried by SZA’s stunning vocals as she cries out, “I wish I was a normal girl,” lamenting her inability to be someone that her lover can show off proudly to their parents, their fellas, everyone around them. There is a raw, beautiful quality to SZA’s voice, and it feels ever-more personal like she’s letting listeners into a private place that nobody else is allowed into through her music. The song is beautiful but forgettable, as normal as the girl that SZA sings about wishing she could be here.
12. Pretty Little Birds (feat. Isaiah Rashad)
Pretty Little Birds pops up on the album near the end of Ctrl, the penultimate track of the album. Among all the tracks I was struggling to give a proper ranking within this list--and believe me, there were PLENTY of those--PLB is perhaps the one I might regret placing this low later on. It’s a dreamy but powerful song all at once, luring you into a false sense of security with a beat that sounds like blue waves in the ocean rolling onto the shore of a beach at sunset before SZA wakes you up, crying out about the pretty little birds she’s seen. Midway through the song, Rashad’s raspy, hoarse voice weaves its way in so naturally you almost forget this was SZA’s song, to begin with. The reason this song is at #12 and not someplace higher is that, and this is all based on my personal opinion, I feel like something is missing. I want something more, and the song doesn’t give it.
11. 20 Something
The opening guitar chord progression is very reminiscent of Supermodel, but it quickly loses all resemblance and takes a different musical direction. I wouldn’t call it boring like I did with Normal Girl, but similar to Pretty Little Birds, I feel like 20 Something is missing something. My favorite part of this song is halfway through at around the 1:37 mark, when SZA shouts out, “How could I be?” I swear, I always end up replaying that part about a dozen or so times whenever my playlist shuffles and lands on this track. It’s hauntingly beautiful, but sadly not enough to carry this song to a higher position. For a song that’s been carefully chosen to close out this masterpiece of an album, though, not a bad choice or song at all.
Additionally, SZA closes off the song with a more meta, a creative choice that can be seen in several of the album’s tracks but is most prominent here; she seems to be talking to her mother who gives her thoughts about Ctrl. Her mother says, “...and that’s my story, And I’m sticking to it,” to which SZA replies with a warm, “That was beautiful mommy, that was perfect.” A bit bizarre but not completely unwelcome, and also very wholesome.
Down for the ride? Sure, I mean, why not? There is a certain video game-esque feel to this track, an additional electronic element that gives this track an elevated level of depth and incredulity. In the chorus, SZA sings on repeat, “Do-do you even know I’m alive?”, hinting towards the subject at whom this song is directed at and pleading for them to recognize her for who she is. Anything feels both unconventional and classic at once, and despite its relatively low place on the list, it’s a good song. Maybe a few more listens could change my mind, but the top 9 on this album are pretty hard to beat, I feel.
9. Go Gina
This song puzzled me the first time around. Who is Gina, and why is SZA singing about her? How was she important enough to find her name cemented in the title of a song off one of the best albums released in the 21st century? Regardless of that unsolved mystery, Go Gina is addictive and short, like the high you experience riding a rollercoaster when it’s just ascended its peak and begins tilting towards a steep plunge. It’s too short, and there isn’t anything particularly special about this song; I just like it a lot, especially the 20 or so seconds of instrumental music at the end that abruptly die off, transitioning smoothly into the next track on the album which just so happens to also be next on this ranking.
8. Garden (Say It Like Dat)
Whoever was special enough for SZA to write this song about must have really been somebody. There is something incredibly simplistic but nonetheless precious about a love song like this; it’s timeless and always works, regardless of the shape or form it ends up manifesting in. Some of my favorite lyrics from this song and off the album in general are, as they usually are, taken from midway in the song, when SZA sings, “Can you hold me when nobody’s around us?” And who is stupid enough to say no to that? I couldn’t possibly think of a person who would be. Garden contains some brand of silly, lovesick magic that makes you want to loop it for hours while lying down in bed, and that’s my favorite kind of song.
7. Doves In The Wind (feat. Kendrick Lamar)
For the sake of simplicity, I’ll try to keep this and the rest of the ranking fairly short. Kendrick was a surprising but not unwelcome addition to this song for me, and the title of the song is as lyrically beautiful as the song is. I haven’t had the opportunity to, but I imagine that listening to Doves In The Wind while it’s pouring rain outside and you would ordinarily hear it coming down hard against your window but instead you hear nothing but SZA and Kendrick in your ears, now that would be a near-religious experience. It’s quite beautiful, and I’ll leave it at that.
6. Drew Barrymore
Initially, I didn’t like this song all that much, and it took me a couple more listens for me to warm up to it. Once I actually read the lyrics I was pleasantly surprised at how much SZA ends up apologizing, for not being more attractive, more ladylike, for being so clingy, but what shocked me the most was learning that instead of saying “woman enough,” the lyrics actually went, “Warm enough for ya outside baby, yeah/Is it warm enough for ya inside me, me, me, me?” Not exactly scandalous, considering Ctrl revolves around themes like womanhood, sexuality, growing up, and love, and it doesn’t detract from the song’s addictive touch in the slightest, either. A tasteful, nice song to listen to whenever you’re feeling a bit down.
What a beautiful way to begin Ctrl. Like the complete polar opposite of 20 Something, Supermodel begins with crackly audio of, again, SZA’s mother elaborating on her thoughts on Ctrl, more specifically about how losing it remains one of her greatest fears. The song transitions into the gentle lull of a guitar’s strum, as SZA croons sweet lines detailing exactly how she’s getting back at an ex-boyfriend of hers. She’s been banging your homeboy, and she’s not ashamed of it in the slightest, considering how this man sounds like a complete scumbag, too. Deserved, I would say, but I digress. Supermodel retains a beautiful, simple kind of vindictive elegance that is impossible to move on from, just like SZA herself.
3/4. Broken Clocks/The Weekend
I struggled massively to place both of these songs within a definitive rank on this list. In the end, I just decided on letting them share this place and gave up on trying to put one above the other. They’re both just amazing in their own unique way; Broken Clocks is absolutely timeless (get it? Timeless?), as SZA laments how time passes by and she’s just burning daylight, but in the end, it’s all still love. Her lyricism shines brightly here, utilizing repetition in a creative but not overdone fashion, all accompanied by her most valuable and powerful asset: her voice. The Weekend, on the other hand, takes a more interesting approach, centered thematically around the story of three women all being played by the same guy where one of the women decides she just doesn’t care. The concept of sharing time with a man and pawning him off to another woman for the weekend only is juxtaposed with the metaphor of a 9 to 5, symbolizing the sometimes exhaustive and unappealing aspects of a committed relationship in contrast with a more carefree, guilty-pleasure sort of illicit affair vibe that the weekend has to offer. It’s playful, it’s a bit risky and sexy, but also just different, especially considering how SZA plays around with different perspectives and assumes the role of all three women within the same song, an amazing artistic choice on her part to depict the ups and downs of infidelity and relationship troubles. Both songs are like night and day, as different from each other as could possibly be, but they each offer their own distinctive kind of beauty that is near impossible to rank definitively on a list like this.
2. Love Galore (feat. Travis Scott)
Yes, yes, I put the song with Travis near first place, and for good reason, too. Love Galore contains a rich melody, the harmonious blend between SZA and Scott’s voices, a pleasantly-effective addition of autotune in Scott’s verse, and is overall a smooth, pleasant song to listen to, climbing high into my Who knew that hearing SZA sing “Love” in about a dozen different ways could end up sounding so good? (Well, now we all do.)
Spectacular, amazing, beautiful, criminally underrated. I don’t even know how to begin to describe the shock I felt when hearing that SZA left this unpromoted and never turned it into a promotional single, or gave it any extra attention. This song is seriously just too good to be mistreated this way. Whenever SZA sings, “Just a little bit,” I feel close to ascending the staircase to heaven. It’s just an incredible piece of work, and unequivocally my favorite song off of Ctrl. The top 6-7 choices of this ranking are all up in the air except for Prom to me; this song deserves #1, and nothing can change my mind about it.