SZA Brings Alt-R&B Back Into the Mainstream With CTRL

SZA Courtesy of RCA Records
R&B is often dismissed as the soundtrack for the scorned lover, a sanctuary for the brokenhearted to seek refuge and commiserate about the ways in which they were wronged by their exes. It's ridiculous to single out one particular genre in this way — heartbreak is the most explored trope in popular music. And the millennial crop of neo-R&B artists is shedding that stale skin. On underground channels, artists are intent on undoing established perceptions of the genre, as millennials are wont to do with institutions of business, fashion, gender, and beyond. The members of the new R&B class have shifted their focus and subject matter to the internal — their own personal flaws, shortcomings, and insecurities and how their successes or failures in relationships might reflect upon them.

The music of many of these so-called alternative R&B artists has made waves online, but it can be tough to translate that buzz into mainstream or radio success, especially because black artists' music is often labeled "R&B" instead of "pop" regardless of its sound. Gravel-voiced singer SZA is the first artist of the genre since Frank Ocean to break out of the underground and into the mainstream with her critically acclaimed album CTRL. Her song "Love Galore," featuring Travis Scott, is making a slow but steady climb up the Billboard charts after her video for the song "Drew Barrymore" generated interest online, and she has already sold out most shows on her CTRL Tour, including her Miami stop at the Ground.

Unlike FKA Twigs, whose music is decidedly alternative pop but has been mislabeled as R&B because of her mixed-race background, SZA delivers music that has all the elements and musical signifiers of R&B — and she has no problem putting a man on blast for his shady two-timing. But what makes CTRL so compelling is SZA's raw and honest delivery about her personal strengths and shortcomings and the role they play in the unfolding events in the life of this "20 Something."

To turn 20 is to enter a decade of confusion and instability in relationships and career, and SZA does not shy away from exploring the messy details and emotions involved. "Honesty hurts when you're getting older," she sings on the closing track. But she also dives deep into her insecurities as a young woman on "Drew Barrymore." "I'm sorry I'm not more attractive/I'm sorry I'm not more ladylike/I'm sorry I don't shave my legs at night... I get so lonely I forget what I'm worth," she sings, echoing Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good" in both vocal tone and sentiment. And as Winehouse once sang in heartbreaking detail about a man who "sniffed out" her infidelity "like I was Tanqueray," SZA sings about sharing her man with other women on the track "The Weekend": "I just keep him satisfied through the weekend/You're like 9 to 5, I'm the weekend."

The lyrics to the song have been hotly debated by fans online. Has SZA fallen prey to the insecure side-chick mentality? Or does her agency transform this message into one of empowerment and control? SZA appears to be less concerned with judgment calls than painting an honest portrait of her inner life, and that honesty has made her music accessible to listeners.
Vulnerability has sometimes been used like a plot device in the career arcs of female artists in particular. These women are tasked with presenting themselves as infallible queens who "slay," until the inevitable PR nightmare or hardship comes along and they're asked to bare their struggles to the world. SZA has revealed the good, the bad, and the ugly on CTRL, side-chick drama and all. It's a revealing reflection of the life of a young woman, like an episode of Girls, with all the awkward sex but without any entitled begging for money from parents.

Though he never languished in the underground, Drake was one of the first to inspire the new class of artists from what would later be called "alternative R&B" with songs such as "Marvin's Room," which focused less on creating hooks and more on setting a mood and coming clean about his struggles with loneliness. He's often been lauded for baring his feelings in a way that undoes expectations of masculinity. Ocean took that even further on Channel Orange by unspooling heteronormative traditions in the genre. With CTRL, it's SZA's turn at the mike to work through issues of femininity, self-worth, and the confusion of youth.

Wearing a tank top, jacket, and white socks in the photo on her album cover, SZA sits on the grass while a mountain of dumped computers and obsolete technology looms behind her. Her generation's preferred means of communication have been literally disconnected, and only her voice and music are left to make contact with the listeners who feel similarly and increasingly isolated in the age of overstimulation and fractured communication. As the album's reception and her growing success prove, her approach seems to be working.

SZA. With Ravyn Lenae. 9 p.m. Saturday, October 7, at the Ground, 34 NE 11th St., Miami; 305-375-0001; Tickets are sold out.
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Celia Almeida is the digital editor of American Way and the former arts and music editor of Miami New Times. Her writing has been featured in Venice, Paper, and Billboard; and she co-hosts Too Much Love on Jolt Radio.
Contact: Celia Almeida