Album Review: SZA – Ctrl
After what feels like a lifetime, SZA finally released her debut album, CTRL A few tweets made by the songbird seemed to hint at some turmoil within TDE, which was keeping the album from debuting earlier. Yet, that was then and this is now as SZA bleeds on every single one of these tracks to reveal a vulnerability that women can relate too at some point in their lives.She begins the album with her mother, who voices her greatest fear as losing control and having fatal consequences. Following up are three tracks that seem to set the tone for what will follow.
The first “Supermodel” is a rock-n-roll track that highlights her insecurities and need for validation from a man. While a supermodel represents the ideal mold of a woman, she realizes that she’ll never be perfect. However, she hopes that she can be her own idea of perfection if her man will only accept her. The song is a somber way to start off the track, but she seems to pick it up with the album’s second single, “Love Galore.” This track, featuring Travis Scott, details her situation with a guy who played her, making her the side chick. While she takes the position of a woman scorned, Travis upholds his position of the no good man defending his actions and trying to pacify her. The production on this song is more upbeat and light hearted. She ends the track with some word of advice from her grandmother, who advises that women should speak up for themselves or a man will think they’re stupid.
“Doves in the Wind” featuring Kendrick Lamar praises the almighty vagina. The groovy, hip hop beat accompanies SZA’s diatribe about men not deserving “pussy.” Kendrick Lamar comes in on the second verse to deliver a funny verse about the power that lies behind it. There is a line in the song that states, “You are now watching MADtv”, an obvious ode to the parody show. However, it also seems like a nod to the chaos that will ensue on the rest of the album. She ends this song with another word of advice, this time from her aunt. She speaks on the art of letting go and at which point enough is enough for her.
“Drew Barrymore” is the album’s first single and slows the upbeat tone of the album down. With a rock and roll influence, SZA questions her ability to be enough for a man, following up on the album’s first track. The sentiment seems to stem from seeing her ex’s new girlfriend and comparing notes. Just like with many other tributes on the album, the song’s title recognizes the 90s movies featuring the notable actress that highlight female angst and self-doubt. “Prom” is a different sound for the singer, entering into the pop/go-go category. On this track, she highlights the naivety associated with one’s teen years, hence the word prom. She also seems to make subtle references to The Wizard of Oz with “Hoppin’ through poppy fields / dodgin’ evil witches.” It appears that SZA doesn’t really know what she’s doing when it comes to love. While Prom could also be a reference to naivety and youth, it also seems short for promise, which she makes a lot of in the song. With all the changes she vows to make, she continues to remind herself not to take things personal, as she so often does.
“The Weekend” is a slow, R&B song that gives 90’s Jodeci feels. In this song, she sings about sharing a man and being his girl on the weekends. While she acknowledges the temporary love he gives her and appears satisfied on the outside, she wants more than two days with him. More than anything, she wants love more than she wants sex. However, she relishes any time that she can get with him. Lyrically, this track is very clever, particular in the chorus with lines like “My man is my man is your man / Heard it’s her man too.” “Go Gina” is a happy track that appears to be about self-reflection as she realizes that she has changed since being with this man. Positioning herself as Gina from the hit sitcom Martin, she urges herself and other women that they need to let their hair down and get “some get right mama.” Going back to the show, Gina was very much put together and was either about her man or her job. Instead, SZA urges being all about yourself and minding your own business.
At this point in the album, there are two scenarios that seem to be at play. On one hand, she still seems to be crooning about the same guy that caused her great pain. However, on the other hand, it seems she has moved on to a healthier relationship. Regardless of the situation, the outcome is still the same as she still questions herself, as well as, the love she receives. The tracks go back and forth, making it difficult to pinpoint which theory works.
“Garden (Say It Like Dat) is a dreamy track in which SZA is still grappling with her self-worth. She discusses how much she needs this man in all the ways that matter. However, there is this looming since of doubt as she picks herself apart. She hopes that he is who he says he is and hopes that he doesn’t discover the real her. Phrasing it this way puts forth that she’s holding back or that she’s ashamed of herself. Even though she doubts his love for her, she can almost believe him through the many ways he shows it or says it. She ends the track by reintroducing her grandmother. She feels as though you don’t have to like her, but you don’t have to be disrespectful either.
“Broken Clocks”, the third single, sums up her lack of time for just about anything. She’s constantly on the go or moving to the point where time simply doesn’t exist for her. She can’t sleep, eat, or even smoke. While she’s going through the motions, she makes sure to reassure her loved ones that “it’s still love.” There is a particular line on the song in which she sings, “Been about three years since I dated you / Why you still talking ‘bout me like we together.” From the previous track, as well as, the one that will follow, it can be assumed that she has moved onto another. However, the songs could also adhere to the time she spent with this ex. The next track, “Anything”, displays this sense of desperation and need for SZA to show that she’s loyal and down. The song is unhealthy and the repetition of the line “Do you even know I’m alive?” underscores this. There is so much emphasis on what she could do better.” It seems to hint that she is referring to the same man that played her instead of her new relationship. “Wavy (Interlude)” featuring James Fauntleroy is a short break from the self-degradation. On this up tempo, R&B track, she sings about no longer drowning in love, but having a handle on it. She weaves this notion through a creatively crafted metaphor of waves, which shouldn’t be surprising given her feature.
“Normal Girl” discusses her desire that she can fit this mold of normalcy. She wonders why she can’t be the girl that a man would want to meet his parents or brag about. There are still lingering feelings of doubt in regards to her self-esteem. She even hints at disappointing her father, stating that she wished she could be “the type of girl, I know my dad would be proud / of.” There’s also this reinstatement that she only seems valuable for sex. Although the track yearns for a since of normalcy, the bridge gives a silver lining that SZA will realize that she is normal and that he’ll regret not cherishing her.
“Pretty Little Birds” featuring Isaiah Rashad is the fifth collaboration for the two and doesn’t disappoint. The haunting track with jazz influences utilizes the bird metaphor as she positions herself as a Phoenix that has fallen short a few times. However, her mistakes don’t discourage her from flying high. She recognizes her shortcomings with love, yet continues to put herself out there despite it. On this track, it seems she may have found a perfect match as she meets a man who changes for her and in turn, she wants to do the same with him. It’s one of few tracks where SZA is downing herself or a man doesn’t have a negative affect on her.
SZA caps off the album with “20 Something” which is an ode to the years ahead of her. She discusses her failed relationship and it’s lack of honesty, as well as, how she felt when it ended for good. The song encapsulates the album as she realizes that as a young 20 something she’ll make mistakes. However, she hopes that her years will be filled with friends and happiness. The acoustic track is very reminiscent of “Supermodel’ and its bareness is similar to the vulnerability she has displayed throughout the album. The album finishes where it begins as her mother defines what control, or CTRL, means to her. She alludes to being grounded as she describes a lack of it control as “an abyss . . . a hole, a darkness, a nothingness.” With the album’s ending, it can be inferred that SZA has come out a much stronger woman than before and has accepted herself completely.
CTRL is all about being aware, but also not having control. With the many lessons that were taught on the album, control for SZA means that she is aware of what is happening to her and she is able to step away when things become to harmful. It’s one thing to know something isn’t good for you, but it’s another when you can stop it. On the other side, not having any control is the best kind of control there is. Understanding that some situations are outside of your hands and accepting this is the best way of living your life. It just like that saying, “I must accept the things I cannot control.” CTRL also means knowing that you are in control. Particularly with the album artwork, SZA is in front of a bunch of outdated computers. It seems to hint that she is controlling her own image or that the old, insecure SZA is gone. The computers also seem to hint at the new form of dating that has plagued this generation as everything is done over technology and social media. SZA created an album for up and coming millennials struggling just like her and she succeeded. CTRL can be found on Apple Music, iTunes, and other streaming services.