1. CTRL by SZA

CTRL

To this point, my list of favorite music from 2017 has focused far too much on male-made music. In the process of making this list, I have grappled with my own internalized biases and have become more aware of the ways in which patriarchal systems and attitudes have manifested in my own personal music taste. While I listened to and enjoyed the fantastic music put out by women like Cardi B,  Lorde, St. Vincent, and Julien Baker this year, I did not listen to those releases nearly as much as the releases of the male artists on this list this year. It’s not because the music that men made in 2017 is better than the music that women made. Frankly put, I am the product of a culture that does not value the contributions of women in the same way that it values the contributions of men, and the music that I listen to unfortunately reflects that. Making this list has forced me to come to terms with that fact, and I know I must now turn my recognition of that reality into action that fights against this male-dominated culture. My impact means more than my intent, and its not enough for me to simply acknowledge my perpetuation of a patriarchal system. Moving forward, I intend to use this platform to uplift female artist, and I hope that you as readers will hold me accountable in that effort, calling me out when I fail to do so.

All this being said, CTRL’s inclusion on my list of albums of 2017 is by no means an attempt at tokenism– CTRL genuinely captured my attention and affection more than any other album released this year. Having not heard any of SZA’s releases prior to CTRL, the album caught me completely by surprise. I first listened to it out of admiration for the work of other artists like Kendrick Lamar, Isaiah Rashad, and Schoolboy Q signed to SZA’s label, Top Dawg Entertainment. TDE has an impeccable ear for the zeitgeist, and I have always felt that everything released under the label captures the sound of the moment and warrants a listen. CTRL continues that trend. Looking back, I’m almost ashamed that I only gave this album its initial chance because of SZA’s colleagues. CTRL doesn’t simply build on the success of its predecessors; it is a masterful major label debut for an artist who has the potential to inspire a unique musical movement all on her own.

A coworker of mine once mentioned that she felt that SZA was something of the female Drake. Another friend told me that she liked SZA because she reminded her of Rihanna. Without disrespecting the opinions of those friends or the legacy of either of those two superstars whom I love, I have to say that SZA honestly sounds much more like SZA than she does any other artist to me. The influences are certainly evident in her music– she simultaneously evokes Drake’s hybrid rap-singing style and Rihanna’s unapologetically frank attitude in every song on CTRL. However, to say that she is simply adopting their style and methods does a disservice to SZA’s music.

SZA is something of a musical trailblazer in my mind.  With this album, she captures what I consider to be a perfect blend of R&B, hip-hop, and indie rock to craft a sound that feels at once contemporary and classic– fresh and familiar. She embraces an at times psychedelic production style that remains grounded and accessible through pop sensibilities and sparing use of more traditional instrumentation, and she succeeds in making a product that appeals to both casual listeners and folks in search of something more cutting-edge. Without a doubt, this is a pop album that is not out of place in today’s pop charts, but it’s tasteful experimentation pushes the envelope and signals a move toward riskier sonic choices. I won’t be surprised if other artists adopt a similar approach inspired SZA in the coming year.

It’s true that SZA’s sound is something of a dream come true for my taste in music, but I’d be lying if I said that that was the only reason why CTRL is my album of the year. As a white guy, I cannot claim to even begin to understand SZA’s personal experience, and yet, I found something deeply relatable in the words she sings on CTRL. CTRL lays the real Solana Imani Rowe’s (the name SZA’s parents gave her) vulnerability, motivations, confusion, apprehensions, and personal victories out on a table and invites the listener to engage deeply with them. Beyond the emotions explored, it’s clear SZA has no problem presenting an unfiltered, unglamourous, and unapologetic version of herself. SZA doesn’t shave her legs, she’s insecure about the size of her booty, she’s jealous of a former lover’s new “perfect” girlfriend who rocks mom jeans. SZA is funny and candid, but that never detracts from the sincerity of the sentiments she sings of on the record.

Sometimes, I think we forget that superstar talents are real people with human idiosyncrasies. CTRL constantly reminds the listener of that fact. By the time we arrive at “20 Something,” SZA seems less like an elevated pop star and more like a good friend whose authenticity has propelled them to well-deserved success. After about 50 minutes of introspective conflict and struggle, the conclusion of CTRL puts forth a message of personal empowerment in spite of unfortunate realities that was taught to SZA by her own mother. This sentiment does not ignore the pain about which SZA sings throughout the album; it is tempered by the lasting effects of SZA’s own challenges. The authenticity of its presentation makes this empowerment that much more meaningful. The power that SZA finds at the end of CTRL comes not from a fresh start or forgetting about her past, but a realization of strength born from surviving the challenges that brought her to this point.

Favorite Track: “Doves in the Wind (feat. Kendrick Lamar)”

Favorite Lyric: “You are but a phoenix among feathers

You’re broken by the waves among the sea

They’ll let you die, they’ll let you wash away

But you swim as well as you fly” (“Pretty Little Birds feat. Isaiah Rashad”)

Time(s) of the year it could commonly be found in my headphones: June- December

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