SZA – CTRL LP Review

SZA - CTRL LP ReviewBy Steven “Crown Energy BE” Bifano

Hip Hop is a genre with a nature of absolute fluidity and versatility. To further explain this statement one must delve deep into the core roots of the genre and understand its conception and creative process. Due to the technique of sampling, Hip Hop is by far the most universal genre of music to ever exist. The genre is ever changing and evolving due to the constant experimentation of already existing sounds, usually known as samples, which are mere bits and pieces of original songs from various genres. These bits and pieces have become the building blocks to form these funky beats, and to overall mold the genre into what it is today. Because of this abstract and revolutionary form of creativity, Hip Hop is an anomaly that goes beyond basic comprehension in the realm of music. Due to sampling, one could see Hip Hop as a genre that is influenced by not one, but all genres of music, making it a form of music with no creative boundaries or set rules. Through this experimental art form, which is initially one of the genres biggest foundational components, Hip Hop could take something old from another genre and flip it to form something new and of its own accord. What’s truly astonishing about this genre is the mere fact that while in itself it has been influenced by other genres, it in turn has influenced the same genres in which it sampled. Over time the influence between Hip Hop and all other genres has been mutual, and when observing the state of other genres in modern times one can easily see this influence. Genres like Rock and Country have been sole examples of having been influenced by Hip Hop, but two other genres have become more socially and musically close ever since Hip Hops conception. These two genres are known as R&B and Soul and when listening to these genres from the 80’s on up, one can easily find many musical components that mirror the style and production of a Hip Hop song.

R&B and Soul tracks all throughout the nineties have been laced with boom-bap drums giving it a sound that went with the times. Like Hip Hop, the drum machine played a big role in the production of both R&B and soul. These genres have even merged with Hip Hop on numerous occasions allowing this form of collaboration and musical exchange to become a social norm in the music industry. Up until modern times the relationship between these three genres has progressed in ways where all types of standards and boundaries have been pushed. Back in the day many of the actions that we are witnessing in Hip Hop today, were forbidden by the rules in the culture. R&B and Soul artists were absent in the Hip Hop scene as consistent collaborators. Some saw a singer on a Hip Hop song as a form of the genre going soft, but also a sign of commercialization and selling out. The industry has infiltrated the culture in a manner that is parasitic, and there’s no doubt that much of our culture has taken a step into the direction of pop rap, but this same act of appropriation can be seen in both R&B and Soul as well. The singer has a place in Hip Hop culture, and a voice along with the emcee. These collaborations and collisions of various genres have taken Hip Hop to different places of creativity and exposure, as well as both R&B and Soul, making these genres inseparable counterparts. In recent years both R&B and Soul singers have taken experimental steps in their creativity and growth. A prime example of this experimentation can be seen in the recent years of R&B, where singers of all types are merging R&B with trap music, which is ultimately a subgenre of Hip Hop. 808 drums are now laced over soulful crescendos and rifts, where the divas of all sorts are experimenting with different styles and flows of rapping while mixing it in with singing. In mainstream R&B there are many examples of this, and many before have taken these same steps and created new and experimental pieces that have become classics for the years to come. This merging of styles has been going on in Hip Hop since the late 90’s and possibly earlier, and in modern times this has been taken to new heights by new artists with visions of creative progress. While entering 2018, the work of one artist must be recognized for sheer talent, creativity, and of course experimentation. This artist goes by the name of SZA, a Queen of extraordinary talent and individuality whose debut album, Ctrl, has impacted both mainstream, independent, and underground realms of the music industry.

Hailing from Maplewood New Jersey, a suburb outside of Newark, SZA has become a  force of creativity in both a feminine and experimental sense. Since the release of her debut EP See.SZA.Run in 2011, SZA has established herself as an artist whose sound and creativity is more than out of the ordinary and distinct. Coming from the Top Dawg Entertainment camp, it’s no surprise that SZA is an artist of distinction. Her label mates vary from acts like Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Schoolboy Q, whom are all emcees whose rhyming styles are different and unorthodox, especially when comparing them to the current scene in Hip Hop. Her moniker alone shows a sense of uniqueness, conceptual creativity, and individual creativity. Anyone whose a big Hip Hop Head can easily see that SZA’s moniker is a play on the 5 Percent Nation attributes of both the RZA and GZA from the Wu-Tang Clan. Both emcees have forged their names from the Supreme Alphabet, a form of the alphabet which contains a deeper symbolic meaning that is meant to create cognitive thinking among a student of the 5 Percent. Each letter has a specific meaning and based upon the number of the letter, the Supreme Math is tied in to give it a deeper meaning, and to ultimately create a broader sense of understanding among a student. RZA’s name stands for Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah, and GZA’s stands for God Zig-Zag-Zig Allah. The fact that SZA based her name off of this  philosophical system is truly interesting as well as thought provoking. SZA’s name stands for Savior(or Self) Zig-Zag-Zig Allah, but the singer has put a little creative twist on the letter S, and mentioned that the S could also stand for Sovereign. By moniker alone, it is clear that SZA has a deep admiration for the emcees that came before her, while at the same time having a deeper sense and perception of herself. Some could see her name as forgery or simply being unoriginal, but even the RZA has signed off on the moniker and has thus shown support. The RZA has even contributed to Ctrl, by speaking and rhyming over the video trailers made for the debut album. The advertisement alone adds a certain appeal to the album, but the album in itself has works that are both versatile and inventive.

When listening to Ctrl, one will notice that each song sounds very different from the next. Multiple musical elements have been used in creating this work, and one can say that some songs fall under the influence of different genres. What’s good about this process is that SZA falls under the category of R&B and Soul. While both genres throughout time have produced artists of superb talent, over time both these genres have become dull and repetitive. This observation is merely critical, but it is also a reflection of what is being produced for mainstream listening. Many R&B and Soul singers fall victim to this repetitive nature on albums, where every song may sound the same. There’s no shift musically and many can see this as laziness and an absolute absence of creativity. Content on many of these works may seem repetitive as well, and it’s almost as if singers are commanded to sing on the same topics over and over. Among these artists, there are many exceptions and SZA so happens to be one of these exceptions. From front to back, “Ctrl” has nothing that is repetitive or redundant musically.

The album starts off with a song called “Super Model,” and at the beginning of the song a clip of SZA’s Mother is played, where she speaks on the concept of having control. The quote states: “That is my greatest fear. That if, if I lost control, or did not have control, things would just, you know, I would be…Fatal.” From there on what sounds to be an acoustic or electric guitar begins to play with a effect that makes the chords sound muddy. Throughout the song the same chords are played, and towards the end some drums come in to add more emphasis to the overall work. The sound of this song is not typical R&B, but rather resembles alternative rock with a nostalgia for a sound from the 90’s and 2000’s era. The content of the song touches on what appears to be a personal experience that SZA had with a former love interest. While the verses describe some form of disgruntlement directed at SZA’s ex, the chorus delves into the entire concept of the song. SZA states: “Leave me lonely for prettier women/ You know I need too much attention for shit like that/ You know you wrong for shit like that/ I could be your supermodel if you believe/ If you see it in me, see it in me, see it in me/ I don’t see myself/ Why I can’t stay alone just by myself?/ Wish I was comfortable just with myself/ But I need you, but I need you, but I need you.” The concept of the song touches on a topic that many individuals face when dealing with a significant other. In a world filled with instagram models, and a societal dictation on beauty, any person will feel insecure and unsure if they are up to par with the taste of their love interest. While this topic is being mentioned overtly, SZA is also displaying the fact that beauty is something of perception. She’s trying to explain that she is good enough for whomever she’s dealing with, but it would take a shift in the person’s perception of physical beauty. The quality of the person comes from the interior, not the exterior. Basically what SZA is saying is that all of those great things you see in someone else’s physical, you can see it in me as well, but you have to look. This concept is very deep, and overall it shows an aspect of human nature. Sometimes as people we put more emphasis on the physical or someone’s ranking in society rather than the overall person. Decision making for a partner may be altered due to someone whose more appealing to the eye. This track explains the complicated nature in relationships for those who are young, particularly millennials, which is why this track is so dope and relatable. Content aside, the production is extremely superb and fits the singers depth and uniqueness. The track was produced by producer Scum with some contributing production by Pharrell Williams. Although Pharrell’s work is much more notable, Scum has contributed to multiple tracks on the overall album, showing the artistic direction and sound.

SZA - CTRL LP ReviewThe album’s second and most successful single goes by the name of “Love Galore,” which contains a feature from alternative Hip Hop/Trap artist Travis Scott. The track starts out with a melodic bass pattern that stems from a synthesizer. The bass has a phatty sound with the effect of an equalizer making it anything but overbearing. The specific pattern plays throughout the track making it a foundational element of the entire piece. The sound of the bass is reminiscent of the usage of analog synths from various genres from the 70’s and 80’s. While the bass is a key component of the analog sound, it is not the only analog sounding ingredient. As the track progresses more and more, we are gifted with an analog synth that is present throughout the chorus, Travis Scott’s verse, and the partial ending of the song. This musical aspect of the song compliments the entirety of the single. The synth and bass allow the track to stand out from typical R&B and Soul, making the song sound like the background music to an old 80’s movie or the theme to the Netflix original series, “Stranger Things.” The drums over the track have a slight 808 sound, but there is much diversity in the general production. The hi-hats resemble patterns in trap music, where the hi-hats stay at a constant speed and switch up for short intervals. This track is diverse with different musical elements, which makes this entire production very unique. As a single, “Love Galore,” was a perfect choice commercially, especially for its diverse array of sounds along with relatable content. While the array of sounds make the song appealing to the ear, the content is very simple. Although simple, the topic is relatable to listeners young and old. Some may view simplicity as being overtly commercial, but this musical tactic is good when delivering the songs message. The songs content touches on the occurrence of one being played by a love interest, specifically a woman being played by a man. In SZA’s first verse we begin to see this content: “Done with these niggas/I don’t love these niggas/Dust off these niggas/ Do it for fun/ Don’t take it personal/ Personally, I’m surprised you called me after the things I said.” The lyrics are self explanatory. In the chorus we are given more detail in regards to the actual concept of the song as well: “Why you bother me when you know you don’t want me?/ Why you bother me when you know you got a woman?/ Why you hit me when you know you know better?” The song outlines the complications of relationships at an immature state, along with the emotions and resentment that follow. Although this is very candid, and this concept has been done time and time again by other artists, it is very common and relatable. At some point every individual, both male and female have been played. This concept is repetitious because it is an occurrence that humanity hasn’t seemed to gotten over. SZA is one of the artists of this current time period to touch on this subject. What makes this song good and original is the approach and sound behind this concept. Although the topic has been expressed by artists from the past, it hasn’t been done in this manner. The tracks lyrical content keeps up with the times, and the musical components of the song are very notable. The combination of trap drum patterns and analog synths is something out of the ordinary, especially in the mainstream Hip Hop/R&B/Soul scene. Travis Scott’s appearance added another element to the song both musically and conceptually. Travis Scott’s usage of autotune added to the sound quality of the track. His vocals complimented the synthesizers backing him. Him contributing ad-libs and other background vocals throughout the track added to the overall sound. Lyrically speaking Travis Scott touches on the same subject, which inherently adds a perspective coming from a male point of view. Arguably what he’s saying is basically the same thing expressed by SZA, but this is the exact point. No one, male or female, is saved from being played or burned by someone whom they share intimacy or interest in. Seeing it come from both a female and male makes this track all the more genuine and dope. This track in particular was produced by ThankGod4Cody, and Lang, who is a frequent producer on this album.

SZA - CTRL LP ReviewAfter discussing both the album’s first track, and most popular single, it is now time to discuss one of the more Hip Hop esque songs on the album. Although many songs on the album have a traditional Hip Hop feel, this one stands out for a number of reasons, mainly for the traditional boom-bap sound. This track goes by the title of “Doves in the Wind,” and it is accompanied with a verse from Top Dawg Entertainment’s most successful artist, Kendrick Lamar. When first listening to this track, one will notice the musical direction simply by hearing the drums, which is one of the most notable and memorable components of this song. The drums resemble that of old school boom-bap, an ingredient that lacks presence in most mainstream Hip Hop. One who is knowledgable of Hip Hop, and how a Hip Hop beat is made, will easily notice that these drums don’t come from digital sample packs, but rather vinyl, which is what makes this track a very special piece for this album. For those who are unaware of beat making and sampling, it must be noted that sampling drums from old records was a major building block when creating the overall sound of a Hip Hop beat. The usage of sampled drums from vinyl is an early building block of Hip Hop music as a whole, and seeing it’s usage in something that touches the mainstream is quit remarkable and rare. Musically it shows more authenticity, as well as an acknowledgement of importance and integrity to the culture. In a world filled with synthesized drum sounds, and sample packs prepared by unknown aliases, it is truly a breath of fresh air to hear an album that consists of drums freshly sampled from vinyl. Drums aside, there are other musical elements on the song that give this track a more respectable Hip Hop feel as well. Throughout the song synthesized chords are being played with a lo-fi sounding feel. These chords played over the drum sample are merely reminiscent of 90’s Hip Hop, giving a soulful yet gritty feel. The content and the topic of this song is very interesting while at the same time suggestive and risque, because what’s being spoken on is the female anatomy and the social escapades that arise from the male gender. In the first verse, SZA expresses her perception on how the female gender is objectified and marginalized, often being referred to as “pussy,” by men who lack respect and perceive women as quick fixes. She states: “Real niggas do not deserve pussy/ Meaning it’s more, you see right through walls/ Ain’t talkin’ about pussy/ Meaning you deserve the whole box of chocolates/ Come with me/ Forrest Gump had a lot goin’ for him/ Never without pussy/ Y’know, Jenny almost gave it all up for him/ Never even pushed for the pussy/ Where’s Forrest now when you need him?” The message that SZA is trying to convey is that men who actually share interest while seeing a mutual sense of humanity and respect for a woman, deserve that woman. Not just her reproductive organs and the pleasure that comes from performing intimate acts, but rather the actual person. They don’t deserve pussy, but rather the actual person that shares the same mutual interest and affection. She uses “real niggas,” as a way to describe individuals who hold women to an equal caliber. Someone who doesn’t treat women as a sport or conquest, but rather as an equal individual, or another human being. SZA also uses a multitude of Forest Gump references throughout the verse as an example of how an individual should treat a love interest. The fictional character is merely used as a metaphor to display this yearning for someone of a high moral character. What’s really being expressed here is the grievances that some women have when dealing with men who practice sexism and sexual conquest, along with lacking maturity and moral character. While this topic is vast and has been touched on in the past, this artist has done it in a way much different and unique from her predecessors. The message is of a more progressive distinction, and through the way it is conveyed, it is sure to reach those of the younger generations. Kendrick Lamar’s verse also touches on the topic, but in a way where a man is showing criticism towards other men for this behavior. Kendrick states: “I mean, the fake chains and the code names/ For insecure, gon’ reassure you not to get pussy/ You overcompensate too much for the pussy/ You like to throw all kinda shade for the pussy/ See, that’s what pussy niggas do.” In this excerpt from his verse, we clearly see Kendrick calling out typical “fuck boy” tactics, behaviors, and attitudes when dealing with women. Having someone of the male gender express disdain for this behavior puts more emphasis on the entire message. The fact that SZA and Kendrick Lamar are also label mates shows a certain type of chemistry that other collaborators wouldn’t be able to perform. This track was produced by beat maker Cam O’bi who was apart of the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League production group.

The last track that should be discussed is one of the more recent singles off the album that goes by the title of, “The Weekend.” This single has been considered as one of the most popular singles along with “Love Galore,” and is one of the songs that has more of a neo-soul sound. The song starts out with synths played in different pitches and different patterns. The sound of these synths will cause the listener to recollect 90’s neo-soul. Among these synths we begin to here vocal samples that are accompanied by a pitch shift. It is very hard to decipher what the vocals are saying, but played in that specific pitch gives it a certain effect that can be found in various soulful Hip Hop songs that contain vocal samples. As this progresses the drums come in along with chords. The synths are played over this and throughout the rest of the track. While the drums are traditionally R&B and played at a slow tempo, trap hi-hats are also present, along with 808 drums layered over the more traditional R&B drums. The sound is very neo-soul, with a modern twist. The content touches on a topic and human behavior that has been ongoing for sometime. This behavior is displayed by all age groups, but mainly those who are in their teens or twenties. This song focuses on those who are in a multitude of romantic/sexual relationships. SZA sings from the point of view of a girl who has encounters with an individual who is simultaneously with other people. In the chorus the message is clear: “My man is my man, is your man/ Heard that’s her man too/ My man is my man, is your man/ Heard that’s her man/ Tuesday and Wednesday, Thursday and Friday/ I just keep him satisfied through the weekend.” This topic has been seen in music before. What’s significant about this topic in this generation is the simple fact that many whom are millennials, and younger, are questioning social and romantic norms. Although this topic may have been present with older generations, the younger generations today are questioning more. What’s truly being acknowledged is that many are realizing that humans are conditioned. We believe and perceive things to be normal, based upon what we’ve been taught in a repetitive manner. All areas of life are being questioned, which inherently will lead into vast areas of knowledge and progress. When it comes to relationships and romantic dynamic between couples, there is much to be questioned. Biologically speaking it has been proven that humans aren’t necessarily wired to be monogamous, but rather choose to do so. Many in the young generation are looking for answers behind specific norms, where many in the older generations can’t answer why things are the way they are. This topic being displayed in this song is important. Its relatable for many of the younger generations whom aren’t practicing traditional monogamy. In a world where many have a multitude of partners, whether frequent, occasional, or polyamorous, this topic speaks to this generation. SZA also shows the anxiety that can arise from these types of relationships. Whats also discussed is the emotions and stress that one may have when they are involved with a person who practices these types of behavior. Its a topic of vastness with a specific relevance to social norms and young people. This track was produced by ThankGod4Cody.

Being in the time of 2018, there is much significance to SZA’s debut album. The younger generations are entering a time of specific progress and questioning. This album conveys the attitude, mentality, and progression of the young generations to come, which is why “Ctrl” is so special and significant. When observing SZA speak on the concept/meaning of Ctrl, one will see the direction and context of this album. Throughout a multitude of interviews, SZA has given the meaning behind this album, which is the meaning and idea of actual control. Do we as humans possess control? Are we in control of somethings and are somethings out of our own control? Is control even a real thing or is it all illusion? These questions are reflections of the artist’s perception of life and the many events that have occurred within her experience. When listening to this album, it’s quite obvious that much of this concept is in regards to romantic love, dealing with a significant other, and the emotions that will arise when being with someone. As an artist, SZA is at a time in her life where growth and development will arise. All young people go through this, and this album is a reflection of this personal time period. Her freshman album shows the level of growth this artist is at, and the albums that are to come in the future will show where and how this artist progresses. It will indeed be interesting. Peace.