Coming Into Self: A Review of SZA 'CTRL'

The first time I heard SZA I just happened upon a video of her just talking about student loans and trying to discover what identity meant to her. That’s what pulled me in. A girl just trying to discover what self-meant and having a public space to do that.

The long awaited summer album of Solana Rowe, Ctrl was slated to debut the summer of 2016 but was met with bumps in the road that pushed it into 2017. In Ctrl, not only are we seeing an older SZA but a young woman with more transparency in her lyrics and a braveness that we couldn’t grasp onto in past projects. The passing of time and the ability to speak truth to her experiences helped develop an impressive body of work that makes me even more excited for more music in the future.

This album alone musically we hear a stripped down and turned up SZA, with much heavier beat influence and a fusion of indie rock and neo-soul influences that collide to create a slick drum heavy sound that makes everything head nod worthy.

SZA‘s journey to self-begins with calling out and being honest about the self-doubt she feels and the validation she tries to find in relationships. Songs such as Anything, where she is attempting to break bad habits, be a better person and hoping to seek validation from someone who will never answer the call:

“ You could take my anywhere
I hope you will, I hope you will, I hope you will
Do you even know I’m alive?
Do you even know I, I”
— "Anything"

I think that’s where this album really hits a lot of 20 something old black women/femmes who find themselves in relationships hoping to find purpose and realizing it never shows up. How those moments of seeking validation can suck but turn into a catalyst for healing. That’s where you see the growth and clarity, SZA has the confidence to say the things most people keep to themselves. To say this heartbreak shit isn’t easy isn’t simple and that at the end you can come out more whole.

The best parts of the album for me were the interludes of the conversations SZA had with her mother and Grandmother that reflect a lot of strength in moving on, songs like Broken Clocks, where we hear SZA discuss just trying to make it but trying to keep love in her heart as she reflects back on past hurt:

“Never hearing what they say
Ohhhh
I just take it day by day
Ohhh
I just do it my way
All I got is these broken clocks
I ain’t got no time”
— "Broken Clocks"

One of the pitfalls of debut albums are features, many young artists get a million features and that overpower the work so much you lose the voice of the original artists. On Ctrl, the standout features are Doves In The Wind ft. Kendrick Lamar and Pretty Little Birds ft. Isaiah Rashad, both of these features felt natural and held the energy of both featured artists in a way that did not interrupt the flow of the album. I still have yet to hear an Isaiah Rashad/SZA collab that didn’t sound amazing. Also felt as if Doves In The Wind could’ve easily fit on DAMN, but that’s neither here nor there.

While scouring the internet for interviews, I was met with a songstress full of the anxiety of dealing with intrusive questions about her weight and sexuality that anybody would be uncomfortable answering. It felt comforting to see the growth SZA develops through her album in those moments of setting clear boundaries with radio hosts. Speaking about her process and how her visuals are a peek into her brain. ”Music is my own private language and it’s hard to incorporate people into that.”

SZA‘s Ctrl is a concept. It’s about trying to chase an illusion, an illusion that you can control your destiny and experiences, how no matter how hard you run it will never be enough and that true healing happens when you let go and let yourself heal.

My favorite song on this album, Normal Girl, another drum heavy almost drowsy vibe, specifically speaks to all these huge concepts SZA is wrestling with but ends the song realizing that the best way to find yourself is just to make it out alive:

“We own the world, cause we not going away out
Wait on yourself cause you can figure your way out
Normal girl
Why do you, babe?”
— "Normal Girl"

The beauty in that journey is speaking it, it’s saying I am history in the making and I’m allowed to not have it together at this moment. While listening to this album, the academic in me was reminded of Black radical subjectivity and the ways black folks have always been in the business of constructing self for ourselves. Bell Hooks talks about in relation to postmodernism how the power to be able to name yourself, to say this is my journey, and how my path to self is something no one can take away from you. The path to self is hard, complicated and full of finding yourself in those moments, you learn from them and move on better than before. This album for me validated the reality of black women out here just trying to make it and finding beauty in the struggle.

“Part of our struggle for radical black subjectivity is the quest to find ways to construct self and identity that are oppositional and liberatory.”- Bell Hooks

When black women define themselves for themselves…..that’s power.