Favorite album review: CTRL by SZA
Born in 1990, by the time she released her album CTRL in 2017, SZA was at the denouement of her twenties—what most would call the best years of one’s life. As the saying goes, youth is a beautiful thing, yet it seems to be a hard thing to balance: enjoy it too much and you’ll be left without friends, love, and hope. Enjoy it too little, you’ll be stuck with regret. Such is the case in “20 something” by SZA in her second album “CTRL.” “20 something” is a comfort song for people in their twenties who are unable to accomplish anything, failed in love, and are left wondering whether life can ever be in control; she assesses the gap between expectation and reality, and her sense of guilt for failing to meet social expectations permeates through the song. However, what she conveys to her listeners is quite the contrary: “20 something” encourages its listeners that although life may be difficult at times they should hang tight even through the means of grasping onto the illusion of being in control. This is shown through SZA’s masterful usage of instrumentation and vocals and the unique form of the song.
This thematic aspect is supported by how the music is instrumentally constructed: “20 something” starts off with subtle guitar riffs consisted of B major 7 and E major 7 chords. This seemingly simple pattern of riffs that repeat from beginning to end is a key factor that adds flavor to the song: although the guitar riff is a dissonance, its clean undistorted sound, and its rhythmic and jazzy vibes create a sound that sounds more like a consonance. This allows its listeners to perceive the song as more pleasant and enjoy the repeated chords. Further, the reverb effect in the guitar line leaves the message of the music resonating longer with us and the simple two-chord riff captures the solitude and loneliness that many young adults feel. The instrumentals of the music add more depth to the lyrics, particularly when SZA sings, “How could it be?/20 something, all alone still/Not a thing in my name/Ain't got nothing, running from love/Only know fear.” Without the instrumentals that make the “20 something” such an enjoyable piece, the whole song might have been mundane; the guitar riff and its various effects help its listeners sympathize with SZA’s music and makes her voice sound more emotional: filled with guilt, low self-esteem, and self-embarrassment. Thematically, the common ground established that SZA too has gone through similarly hard times makes her message more powerful and personal. Additionally, SZA’s vocal itself is another instrument. Her angelic and soothing voice layers over the guitar riffs and dovetails with the purpose of “20 something” being a comfort song. Her powerful yet delicate voice conveys emotion with depth and her unique timbre makes auto-tune unnecessary. SZA’s voice particularly stands out when she sings, “Good luck on them 20 somethings, good luck on them 20 somethings/But God bless these 20 somethings.” When she calls out for God, the tone abruptly goes up, maximizing the effect calling God out of desperation. If it wasn’t for SZA’s masterful usage of vocals and her capability to sharply reach high notes, the lyrics might not have sounded as genuine as it does. This ultimately serves to heighten the message of the song: 20-somethings should hang tight and pray to God because they are not alone.
The form regarding how the song is structured and designed is also key to fully understand the complexity of the song and how SZA delivers her message. Some parts of the music that stand out are its chorus and the outro. In the chorus, SZA repeatedly sings “(God bless, oh God bless, oh God bless, oh God bless, oh)” and “Prayin' the 20 somethings don't kill me, don't kill me.” The repetition of “God bless” and “don’t kill me” underscores the sentiment that SZA is feeling and reinstates her message that many people feel the same way, thus they should go through it together and pretend everything is under control by praying to God. Another interesting part is its unconventional use of a phone dialogue in the outro. Listeners can hear SZA and her mother converse, “And if it's an illusion, I don't want to wake up. I'm gonna hang on to it. Because the alternative is an abyss... Who wants that?... So that's what I think about control, and that's my story, and I'm stickin' to it.” Interestingly, the beginning of the CTRL album also starts with the voice of SZA’s mother, which serves as a leitmotif of the whole album—The way the song and album are structured ultimately seems to emphasize that in hard times when all seems out of control, mother will be there for you; using a mother’s voice as a leitmotif soothes the listeners and helps emphasize the theme of the song as well resonates with the listeners.
With the two musical aspects (guitar riff and vocal) and two moments of the song I found interesting (chorus and outro), I found a new perspective on the song, and its lyricism truly astounds me. The song demonstrates the dichotomy of perspective in how she looks back at it: it captures the central theme of the song as both an appreciation for her twenties and a plea for it not to end. She is introspective and shares her unvarnished thoughts regarding the brutal reality in which she can only hope to keep her friends and pray for her twenties to not kill her. She tells of her own personal story and displays her vulnerable side; by doing so, it creates an increased sense of sympathy between her and her audience. Ultimately, SZA’s “20 something” is a beautiful song for those who needs a remedy for a broken heart, hurt by the harshness and the lack of control in the real world. As someone who is leaving his teenage life in less than a year, the song just adds another meaning to me.