best of 2017: sza "ctrl"

by Megan Maloney

SZA’s Ctrl is my favorite album this year. And she sure as hell made me wait for it.

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There is plenty of speculation on why Z and Ctrl were three years apart and how the dynamics of SZA’s first label, Top Dawg Entertainment, came into play but I’ll give you the tl;dr.

This album was originally due to drop in 2015. Its release was pushed to 2016, only to be shared with fans even later in June 2017. Throughout this timeframe SZA, née Solána Rowe, was pretty vocal about the delays and at one point conveyed her frustration by threatening to quit the label.  Without reaching too hard on what went down I’ll address that 1.) she is the only woman on the label and 2.) TDE had to promote Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. which was hot and fresh out the kitchen.

Any residual Top Dawg “drama” is now undetectable: by glancing at both artists’ social feeds; you’ll see nothing but support for one another’s projects. And perhaps the wait was for the best. It’s hard to imagine Ctrl—at any iteration—to be just shy of perfect. With five Grammy nominations and constant accolades later, let me tell you what this album means to me.

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At first take, Ctrl seems like another sweet n sticky cinnamon roll of an album. From its first two singles, “Drew Barrymore” and “Love Galore,” I knew this album was right up my alley and would be far more sophisticated than Z. It obviously wasn’t until Ctrl dropped in entirety and I had the privilege of seeing this SZA perform twice did I realize how talented and dynamic Solana Rowe is as an artist and performer.

Ctrl leverages sampling from Busta Rhymes, Donna Summer, and Justin Timberlake, easily showing the range of influences Rowe can confidently pull from. Rowe has also cited Jamiroqui, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stevie Nicks, and especially fellow New Jersey-raised Lauryn Hill as notable inspiration. The purpose of revealing this is meant to indicate where SZA’s brand of Neo-Soul and R&B has been and where it will be going, Ctrl and beyond.

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In interviews and interacting with the audience, SZA gives off this sweet, maybe even timid vibe of a goofy, rose quartz collecting 28-year-old in Doc Martens and silk pajamas. Once live, that persona transforms and we see the introspective woman behind Ctrl.

More than just a set of passionate, heat-of-the-moment diary entries, Ctrl explores self-image and the male gaze, jealousy and being the other woman. “The Weekend” and “Broken Clocks,” two of my favorite tracks, are perfect examples of the internal struggle of giving yourself to someone at the expense of meeting your personal goals.

While I’m thankful this album was blessed with a Kendrick Lamar feature, “Doves in the Wind” isn’t much more than a one-dimensional take on worshipping female anatomy, no matter how fun it is to sing along to.

Ctrl is back on track with addressing our stereotypically millennial problems, like the unhealthy hookup to shaky relationship pipeline a la “Love Galore” and “Garden (Say It Like Dat).” Nostalgia-chasing 90s ballads “Go Gina,” “Drew Barrymore,” “20 Something” have us commiserating with each rotation. I can confidently say blasting “The Weekend when you’re hauling down 75 South mad at something your man said is equivalent to eating two orders of hash browns smothered and double covered when you’re trying to sober up around 3am Sunday morning. It just hurts so good.

In all seriousness, with Ctrl, Rowe seems to acknowledge that there are some things about herself she has made amends with; but like many of us, she still has a journey of introspection and self-love practice ahead. Maybe this isn’t Solange-prescription-strength-feminism, but it is honest and unapologetic.

Through 14 tracks, SZA tells us there is room for growth and empowerment alongside jealousy and all the nasty feelings that manifest from comparing ourselves to others in the name of romantic relationships and the kyriarchy. The intros and outros by Rowe’s matriarchal influences provide the intergenerational dimension of these themes. Those vignettes serve as the moments of clarity you get when you hear something your mom/aunt/grandma said and it clicks that they were hot mess at your age, too.

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As much as I am a champion for boxing up embarrassing emotions, Ctrl helped me accept that these aforementioned themes are universal human feelings that are to be examined and even celebrated, not burrowed. What more could you want from a therapy session of an album that also totally bangs?


Illustration by Sarah Crawford. Based on SZA's Ctrl album cover, shot by Sage Adams.