Albums of 2017 (#2): SZA – Ctrl
SZA takes control on her debut album fully unearthing her deepest insecurities and comes out the other side stronger
Most artists can’t – or won’t – ever fully unearth their deepest insecurities for their music. SZA does it on her debut. An astronomical leap forward for the American songwriter, with Ctrl she unequivocally fulfils the promise of her early releases. While she showed a deft hand for establishing atmosphere on her S mixtape and Z EP, her songs often fell back into uninteresting pop platitudes. Here, the songwriting is more mature, the production is quietly masterful, and her vocal delivery is at once both measured and dynamic. Witty and consistently relatable, Ctrl is a collection of blunt confessionals from SZA’s late twenties; she brushes off the myriad of problems that could drag her down with a quiet sigh that teeters on the edge of apathy and anxiety.
Throughout these tribulations, the one constant in SZA’s life is her family. Recordings of her mother and grandmother’s voice appear throughout Ctrl as interludes, a framing device that she's since stated allowed her to speak more candidly. It could have been mawkish, but their lines tie effectively into the album’s themes – namely self-confidence and the notion of losing control. On Garden (Say it Like Dat), she repeatedly asks a lover for reassurance: that he’ll keep her grounded, that he’ll call her out on her bullshit. In the outro, though, her grandmother responds by telling her that she mustn’t change herself for anybody. While SZA treasures her family, romance is a decidedly more mixed bag.
She mulls the worth of relationships throughout Ctrl, but past experiences leave her sceptical. Album opener Supermodel is a refreshingly unconcerned take on scorned love. A scathing ‘fuck you’ to an unfaithful ex-boyfriend, her words bleed with disdain. 'Let me tell you a secret / I been secretly banging your homeboy,' she spits, her contempt palpable as she recounts the ultimate revenge fantasy. In Justin Timberlake-sampling The Weekend SZA takes the perspective of two different women dating the same man, likening one to the weekdays and the other to the weekend. Rather than bemoan the betrayal, she dismisses it as an inevitable fact of modern dating.
Elsewhere, SZA sounds uninterested in romance altogether. Lead single Drew Barrymore finds her making a series of apologies to a partner, at first tapping into her own insecurities – 'I’m sorry I’m not more attractive' – before revelling in minutiae: 'I’m sorry I don’t shave my legs at night'. Yeah she could easily shave, but that’s irrelevant – SZA is making a larger statement about how she refuses to ‘fix’ herself for the sake of a lover. The point is made more explicit in Broken Clocks where she sings about how she 'don’t need nobody' while reminiscing about a past boyfriend; she vows instead to focus on her career while a trap beat clatters beneath her vocals.
These moments of effortless badassery make it all the more poignant when SZA lets down her guard and strips to her deepest insecurities. 'How could it be? 20 something / All alone still, not a thing in my name,' she reflects on pensive album closer 20 Something, backed by only muted guitar chords. The song taps into the existential dread of a quarter-life crisis, illustrating the anxiety that’s inherent to a time of such tectonic shift. Her rejection of relationships is not without uncertainty, too. 'Wish I was the type of girl you take over to mama,' she laments on Normal Girl, realising that her fierce independence makes it impossible to settle down.
The stripped-back arrangements on Ctrl are most effective in these sober moments. She reaffirms her dismissal of needing a man to make her happy on Love Galore, but in moments of vulnerability longs for an ex. Her voice is deliberately the focal point of the track, while a breezy tropical beat gives her affective delivery room to breathe. On her EPs, SZA’s voice was often buried beneath cluttered instrumentals. On Ctrl, the production is understated, deftly shifting our attention to SZA herself where it belongs.
A final message from SZA’s mother acts as a coda to the album. She tells her daughter that even if having power is an illusion, it’s worth hanging on to because the alternative – 'darkness, nothingness' – is far worse. The world is a frightening place, and the idea that we have no agency over our own lives is terrifying. On Ctrl, SZA finds comfort – control – in self-acceptance. The album candidly illustrates her realisation of who she is as a person, together with the solace and angst intrinsic to such an awakening. She exposes her soul more than most others could probably bear, and comes out the other side stronger for it.
Ctrl was released on 9 Jun via Top Dawg Entertainment/ RCA