SZA Strips Down to Delicate, Bare-Bone Vulnerability on 'CTRL'

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SZA poses for a portrait backstage during day 2 of the AFROPUNK festival at Commodore Barry Park on Aug. 24, 2014 in Brooklyn, New York.  

A girl’s twenties are rough, man, and SZA gets it. Born Solána Rowe of New Jersey, the 26-year-old singer-songwriter has been a quiet, energizing force in music's background. Despite being signed to Top Dawg Entertainment -- a label that boasts a roster of some of the most visible rappers out now, led by Kendrick Lamar -- as well as scoring a critically acclaimed Chance The Rapper-featuring single, "Child’s Play," and co-penning Rihanna’s ANTI  deep cut "Consideration," SZA’s ethereal vocals were stil mostly known to those who waded in SoundCloud religiously.

Dating back to 2012, her early efforts -- 2012's See.SZA.Run, 2013's S and 2014's Z -- provided audible baptisms for fellow travelers but are ultimately littered with shards of uncertainty you’d be hard-pressed to find in her work now. With CTRL, her much anticipated 14-track debut LP after a three-year hiatus, SZA paints all the colorful and dark insecurities of being a 20-something in love and life with a newfound assurance, stripping to delicate, bare-bone vulnerability. With less than a handful of features -- Lamar, Isaiah Rashad, Travis Scott and a far-too-short appearance by James Fauntleroy -- SZA crafts a perfectly poetic and equally straightforward body of work, not unlike fellow R&B outlier and storyteller Frank Ocean.

A minute after pressing play on album opener “Supermodel,” her dreamy voice details adulterous revenge (“I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy”) and temporary love while flipping through things everyday women can relate to -- like finding security in yourself, a common theme throughout. Later, SZA gives the rundown of a part-time situationship on “The Weekend,” a tickling, smooth cut that sonically seems ripped right from a batch of '90s hits. And on “Doves In The Wind,” her breathy tone spews a deeper, soul-snatching power of a woman’s sex emphasized by Lamar’s lyrical acrobatics.

However, the album’s brightest spots find SZA searching for self-worth after being crushed by the weight of love and lust. “Normal Girl” finds her trying to be a more pleasing type of girl for a guy’s affection (“Wish I was the type of girl that you take over to mama/ The type of girl I know my daddy would be proud of”) but ultimately throwing in the towel. On “Love Galore,” she leans on lust after love has all but expired (“Why you bother me if you know you don’t want me?”) while wrestling with letting go.

“Drew Barrymore” -- a guitar-laden gem where she grapples with her self-worth (“I get so lonely, I forget what I’m worth) -- and “Prom,” a chillwave jam, are both firm reminders of the album’s sonic variety and confirm that SZA’s not merely an R&B artist but a soulful, genre-spanning creative who has emerged front and center as a standout artist with a promising career ahead.

Overall, CTRL is SZA’s coming-out party: A collection of emotional musings and sometimes petty relationship drama, her clear-eyed, full-hearted declarations -- where vulgar words sound sweeter and exposed feelings become Instagram captions -- strongly confirm she is unapologetically comitted to being who she is, completely and honestly. It's a sentiment that Kendrick -- a voice of reason on the album, along with SZA's own mother and grandmother, who appear on the bookending tracks -- advises himself at the top of the album: “Solana, middle fingers up. Speak your truth.”