Album Of The Week: SZA’s Ctrl takes honest look at female psyche

SZA references two Hollywood icons in her debut album, Ctrl.
SZA references two Hollywood icons in her debut album, Ctrl.PHOTO: TOP DAWG/RCA

Who would have thunk that, but it is increasingly evident that Forrest Gump, the titular character of the 1994 Tom Hanks film, is an artistic touchstone for today's millennial crooners.

Frank Ocean waxes lyrical in Forrest Gump, a standout from his 2012 debut album Channel Orange, about a homoerotic crush and where the runaway movie character is viewed as a symbol of unattainable passion.

And now, SZA, born Solana Rowe in St Louis and now based in New Jersey, has referenced Gump in Doves In The Wind, a duet with labelmate Kendrick Lamar, from her languidly confident debut album.

A song dedicated to the, ahem, female productive organ, it is really about how ridiculously sex-obsessed people are, and that you can discover a person's true character if you focus on other things.

"Where's Forrest now when you need him?" she asks in the first verse, adding that "you deserve the whole box of chocolates". The beats are slow, moody, angst-ridden, bothersome.

Lamar rears his head in mid-song to rap about the desperation of sex-starved Lotharios. The lyrics are unprintable, but the effect remains sensual.

  • ALTERNATIVE R&B


  • SZA references two Hollywood icons in her debut album, Ctrl.

    CTRL

    SZA

    Top Dawg/RCA

    4/5 stars

Such is the effortless majesty of SZA, who mirrors Ocean's laidback, malleable brand of R&B, always interrogating misogynistic stereotyping while having helluva fun.

Another Hollywood icon pops up in Drew Barrymore, a track inspired by downtrodden characters played by the actress in 1990s films such as Never Been Kissed and Poison Ivy.

This time around, SZA takes on the entire psychological baggage carried by the female sex from the sense of self-worth to the need for attachment.

"Sorry I'm not more attractive/sorry I'm not more ladylike/Sorry I don't shave my legs at night," goes the passive-aggressive missive, as SZA moans over squiggly, bubbly keys and a quasi-reggae groove. You relish the grit as she gnashes and spits out the comeback: "It's hard enough you got to treat me like this", putting extra garnish on the "got".

This is followed by a pop doozie called Prom, the ultimate comingof-age ritual for any female who is not yet a woman, no longer a girl.

Once again, SZA gets the unending circle of insecurities. "Fearin' not growin' up/Keepin' me up at night," she sings from the outset. There's the Auto-Tuned treatment that makes her vocals sound sick (in a good way) and the infectious beats that bounce around like beach balls.

Her take-no-prisoners honesty is fetching. On Normal Girl, she confesses as the music wraps itself into curlicues of synths and slapdash percussion: "Wish I was the type of girl you take over to mama", but comes to terms with her true nature at the end: "I'll never be, no never be."

Compared with contemporaries such as FKA twigs or Jhene Aiko who are more well put-together, SZA is messier, but, miraculously, everything falls into the right place.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2017, with the headline 'Honest look at the female psyche'. Print Edition | Subscribe