The official major label album debut for Solána Imani Rowe, professionally known as SZA, is upon us. 2014's Z was technically termed a mixtape for the resident R&B singer on the Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) imprint (home, of course, to roster mates like Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q and Isaiah Rashad) but nonetheless functioned as a quick, gauzy intro for the New Jersey-based artist.
CTRL has been a long time coming — the project suffered a few delays, coupled with whispers of internal industry drama with Top Dawg Entertainment — but what's presented here is "new neo-soul" personified. SZA maintains a precise musical methodology, one engrained in R&B yet osmotically drawing on pop, hip-hop and electronic genre influences (SZA herself cites the music of Sade, Lauryn Hill, Purity Ring, Yuki, Björk and Billie Holiday as touchstones) for an indulgent, fluent sound.
SZA's knack for marrying her assorted tastes into an intriguing sound is her strong suit, and coupled with her distinct vocal and songwriting abilities, she comes across here as a consummate artist. CTRL is 14 delicious portions of a wholly realized vibe, with bespoke lyrics marked by universality and hip-hop-influenced production that unfolds along notes of straight-up soul and sparkling pop.
Stark opener "Supermodel," an exposed diary entry speaking of relationship betrayal and fallout, establishes a balance of honesty, strength and fragility all at once. Single "Love Galore" deals in heartbreak — with Travis Scott brought along for the ride — while the Kendrick Lamar-starring "Doves in the Wind" confidently speaks to pussy power (the word comes up dozens of times) over a dank boom-bap beat. Standout "Drew Barrymore" is destined to be a concert sing-along fave, its pop influences worn proudly, its subject matter of knowing your value post-breakup both empowering and gratifying. "The Weekend" mixes it up with some '90s-era neo-soul, "Pretty Little Birds" featuring Isaiah Rashad flutters high on an electronic jazz groove, "Broken Clocks" cribs from River Tiber and Daniel Caesar's "West" and "Anything" trucks on a trip-hop futurism approach, to progressive effect. The lukewarm hook on "Go Gina" results in the floppiest track on the album, but the sturdily written "Garden (Say It Like Dat)" shows that SZA's got ample songwriting chops.
SZA is the full package in terms of artistry: killer singing and songwriting abilities with a distinct perspective on life, love and destiny. CTRL is craft in action, a uniquely excellent album from a uniquely excellent artist. (Sony)