Why SZA’s CTRL Is the R&B Album of the Summer

As the lone R&B singer on the Top Dawg Entertainment roster, SZA has been the label’s go-to source for melodic contributions since she signed on in 2013. She’s loaned hooks and guest spots to most of her labelmates’ albums, appearing on Isaiah Rashad’s The Sun’s Tirade, ScHoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP, Ab-Soul’s These Days, and Jay Rock’s 90059.

This month marks the release of CTRL, SZA’s long-awaited debut studio LP. While Rashad and fellow TDE rapper Kendrick Lamar return the favor with featured verses, CTRL demonstrates that SZA is more than capable of carrying a project on her own.  

If there were any doubts about SZA as a solo artist, she puts them to rest in the three minutes of album opener “Supermodel.” The track features skeletal instrumentation, allowing the full range of her voice to breathe over minimalist guitar and drums.

The rest of the album’s production is similarly stripped down, with sparse samples accentuating SZA’s vocal work. “Broken Clocks” features a reverb-heavy loop of Toronto artists River Tiber and Daniel Caesar’s song “West.” “Anything” contains a subtle quote of Donna Summer’s “Spring Reprise” atop stuttering electronic drums. Even subtler still, SZA slips in a quick sample of Redman’s “Let’s Get Dirty” midway through the Kendrick Lamar-assisted, definitely dirty “Doves In The Wind.”

SZA has been upfront about her eclectic influences. She’s indebted to powerful vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Lauryn Hill, who grew up near SZA’s hometown of Maplewood, New Jersey. She’s professed love for Purity Ring, who produced “God’s Reign,” an Ab-soul song on which SZA appears. And SZA’s music exudes a calming effect akin to that of Little Dragon, blending elements of other genres to push R&B into stranger and more interesting territory. Outside of her work with TDE, SZA has collaborated with several top names in R&B: She appeared on “Consideration,” the opening track of Rihanna’s ANTI, and she helped write “Feeling Myself,” Nicki Minaj’s collaborative track with Beyoncé.

It must be difficult to be a singer on a label dominated by rappers, but a few years of background work seemed only to prime SZA for a stronger solo debut. Not every song on CTRL is perfect, but each is presented in SZA’s unique voice and refined style. With CTRL, SZA cements a place for herself not just as a collaborator or supporting act, but as a standalone artist.