“I actually quit,” SZA tweeted in October 2016. While SZA had previously confirmed to Entertainment Weekly in May that her debut album (then titled A) would drop “while everyone is still in a bathing suit” that year, the record was still nowhere to be seen by October despite apparently being finished. “@iamstillpunch can release my album if he ever feels like it. Y’all be blessed,” the frustrated singer remarked about the non-existent whereabouts of A. Fast forward to June 2017 and, low and behold, we really did get SZA’s debut album while we were in our bathing suits (albeit a year later). The wait was unquestionably worth it though – Ctrl is one of the most self-assured, unapologetic debuts to ever grace my ears.
Like all debut albums worthy of respect and acclaim, Ctrl comes from years of perseverance, hard work and determination. It’s rare for a debut to sound so polished and confident in every essence of itself, an ironic quality considering how much personal insecurity SZA deals with in the lyrics. It’s worth noting, however, that SZA has been practicing and perfecting her sound (spacey soul blended with glimmers of hip-hop and acoustic indie pop) through an array of gem-filled EPs since 2012.
With the (surprising to both me and SZA) immensely well-received release of Ctrl, SZA has attracted comparisons to other artists (notably Amy Winehouse) but they are similarities I don’t wholeheartedly hear. SZA’s inimitable sound, the facet which kept me checking for her since I first discovered See.SZA.Run in 2012, is as present as ever on Ctrl. Despite that, the creatively quirky way SZA explores failed relationships with “dirty men” in Ctrl makes it a little difficult not to hear some of them in Jhené Aiko’s signature sorrowful vocals, who SZA supported on tour in 2014. Ultimately, although I half expect Ariana Grande to burst onto “Broken Clocks” (its pitched-down opening always makes me think “Knew Better” is playing) and the dreamy synth and Game Boy beat of “Prom” unwraps like LÉON’s “Sleep Deprived”, SZA doesn’t really sound like anybody else – SZA sounds like SZA (“I just do it my way”).
The album’s opening lyric (“I’m writing this letter to let you know…”) insinuates that all of the outpouring in Ctrl comes from SZA’s deepest thoughts and insecurities, to be confided in one trusted soul. The now notorious “I’ve been secretly banging your home boy” revelation during the first minute of Ctrl’s opening number “Supermodel” represents the influx of confessions in every song, delivered with a no holds barred conversational tone:
“I’m so ashamed of myself think I need therapy (ee-ee-eEeEee) / 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’m sorry I’m not your baby mama / I’m sorry you got karma comin’ to you… I’m sorry I’m so clingy I don’t mean to be a lot.”
– “Drew Barrymore”.
“Fearin’ not growin’ up / Keepin’ me up at night.”
“I belong to nobody / Hope it don’t bother you / You could mind your business.”
– “Go Gina”.
“You know I’m sensitive about havin’ no booty / Havin’ nobody, only you, buddy / Can you hold me when nobody’s around us? … Hope you never find out who I really am.”
– “Garden (Say It Like Dat)”.
“Maybe I’ll be perfect in a new dimension.”
“I think I’m bad as hell / I got issues, out of line.”
– “Wavy (Interlude)”.
“I really wish I was a normal girl, oh my… Wanna be the type of girl my daddy, he’d be proud of.”
– “Normal Girl”.
“Prayin’ the 20 somethings don’t kill me, don’t kill me.”
– “20 Something”.
SZA genuinely gets what feeling repulsively undesirable, unbearably lonely and agonizingly insecure is like, and she crafts those moods into magical musical moments.
Although that lyric from “20 Something” relates to the dreaded stress millennials face to ‘make something of themselves’ in today’s high-pressure society, in the wake of Charlottesville its double-meaning resonates as pertinently as ever. The lyric serves as a harrowing insight into the mindset of 2017’s black youths and SZA’s narration mimics the abhorrent fact that, in Trump’s America, black people are literally out here “prayin’ the 20 somethings don’t kill me.”
That level of intimacy with audiences is elevated by SZA asking painfully blunt existential questions in relation to the world surrounding her and the people within it:
“Why am I so easy to forget like that?”
“Why you bother me when you know you don’t want me? Why you bother me when you know you got a woman? Why you hit me when you know you know better?”
– “Love Galore”.
“Am I doin’ enough? Feel like I’m wastin’ time.”
“You’ll never love me but I believe you when you say it like that / Do you mean it when you say it like that?”
– “Garden (Say It Like Dat)”.
“Do do you even know I’m alive?”
“Why you ain’t say you was gettin’ bored? / Why you ain’t say I was fallin’ short?”
– “20 Something”.
Those hard-hitting, brutally honest questions are what makes Ctrl’s lyrics, just like the 90s movies she is so fascinated by, so relatable.
But it’s not just what SZA is communicating that makes the experience of Ctrl so immersive. Her vocal delivery – sweet with a slightly harsh edge – plunges all of that honesty directly into the core of your heart. You can practically hear SZA’s weary, shattered soul bleeding all over “Garden (Say It Like Dat)” and “Prom”. Then you have the spiral-like “My man is my man is her man heard it’s her man too” from “The Weekend”, a seductive slow-jam with a retro feel which hears SZA creating a rota and allocating shifts for when each of this one guy’s chicks can ‘work’. The lyric, the centerpiece of the track, is highly effective at mirroring the confusion that comes with messy love situations. Alongside SZA’s vocal delivery, it’s the exotic and playful vocal style in which these heartfelt lyrics are decorated with which takes the Ctrl experience to new heights:
“Skrrr skrrr on bee-chez / I don’t know these bee-chez / Deeg dirt on bee-chez, do it for fun / Don’t take EET personawwwwl baybeh“
– “Love Galore”.
I guess those nuances are somewhat polarizing when it comes to deciding if you like SZA’s music or not, but I personally think it’s what makes those witty and woeful lyrics *RuPaul voice* extra special.
I also really love the way SZA forms connections between her songs. “Sorry I don’t shave my legs at night” she unabashedly proclaims in “Drew Barrymore”. “I wanna shave my legs for you,” SZA later admits at the end of the album in “Pretty Little Birds”. It’s a tactic which proves SZA has a knack for storytelling within her music, and piles on that additional weight to it.
Fortunately for SZA, Ctrl has well and truly put her on the map and secured her a spot everybody’s radar (and Best of 2017 list). SZA doesn’t have to “accept the party is over” – it’s only just beginning for this bright young star.