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“I’m writing this letter to let you know/ I’m really leaving/ and no, I’m not keeping your shit.”
The opening line to the first track of SZA’s debut studio album titled ‘CTRL’ , floats into the ear and subconscious. Fluttering, her voice is gentle but steady and with purpose. Only accompanied by three simple chords of an electric guitar riff, the frankness in her words are unblunted.
‘CTRL’ aptly stands for ‘Control’, the central theme within this body of work. With leitmotif like lust and love, the album takes us through a journey of self-discovery as a 20-something-year-old within the premise of control. These lyrics are a straight shot to the heart and it’s hard not to feel the vulnerability behind the rawness and grain of her voice. Whether she’s talking about a shared lover, wanting someone you can’t have, or figuring out the difference between getting older and growing up, the albums’ obvious ode to feminism doesn’t only appeal to women, but men alike. I mean, who hasn’t been cheated on or had their heart broken? Who hasn’t been the side-chick, main-chick, main-man, side-piece? Trust me, we’ve all been there and we’re feeling this.
Solána Imani Rowe, better know as SZA (Sizz-AH)–a name which comes from the Supreme Alphabet (a system of interpreting text to find deeper meaning and represents words for self-knowledge, enlightenment and God).
‘Sovereign, Zig-zag, Allah,’ is obviously inspired by Wu-Tang Clan RZA, which was one of her many musical influences growing up in Maplewood, New Jersey. Considering where she’s from and her upbringing within a strict multi-religious family–her mom Christian, her dad Muslim–it’s surprising to hear her sling lyrics like, “High key, your d**k is weak buddy/ It’s only replaced by a rubber substitute / We ain’t feelin’ you,” off her track ‘Doves in the Wind’ alongside TDE label-member and top recording artist Kendrick Lamar.
SZA dances outside the box of societal expectations and states her truths by way of her libretto in a literal and metaphorical way, and we’re all here for it. And don’t think for a second that because of her feminist-forward words that she’s lost any support from her family. SZA’s father, Abdul Mubarak-Rowe, declared his pride in his daughter’s works in a video posted to twitter showcasing him singing along to her song ‘Broken Clocks’ . Dressed in CTRL tour merch he says, “Every time I hear this song sweetie, I’m in tears. I love this song by you — I love your whole album but this is one of my favorite songs”. Also on the album, SZA’s mother and grandmother both dropped life gems in the form of interludes. “If you don’t like me/ You don’t have to fool with me/ You don’t have to talk about me or treat me mean/ I don’t have to treat you mean/ I just stay out of your way/ That’s the way you work that one” . Sage advice from her grandmother that lends in making this album a much more personal one than fans are accustomed to hearing with SZA.
In the past, her works have tended to be more metaphorical and with the use of more synth and reverb. Her style in the past was more experimental and unexpected leaving us unable to connect with the pathos of her music. Her last EP, ‘Z’ , although well received, didn’t explode her into stardom in the way ‘CTRL’ has. Maybe it was the use of metaphors like, “Come Desdemona, Othello and tragedies/ Shakespearean sorrows, where do I begin?/ Where do we begin? ”, that requires a deeper introspection to understand the references to Shakespeare and the like. Or maybe it was the fact that her voice was not in the foreground but instead sometimes overtaken by the use of 1980s synthpop elements and layers of sliced, delayed, and reversed vocals which all sounded a bit synthetic and didn’t fully capture her full range of vocal capabilities.
Although one can appreciate this musical and lyrical complexity, it’s the natural timbre of her voice and bare honesty of her lyrics that make ‘CTRL’ a home-run. Not only has it awarded her a Grammy-nomination, but CTRL was officially certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America, and singles “Love Galore” and “The Weekend” are now double-Platinum, while “Broken Clocks” and “Garden (Say It Like Dat)” are Gold, earning her a top spot in the music industry. Some well-deserved accomplishments for TDE’s leading lady, cementing her place in the hearts of millions of ‘20-something’ year olds around the world.
“I get so lonely, I forget what I’m worth/ We get so lonely, we pretend that this works/ I’m so ashamed of myself think I need therapy/ 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”. These lyrics from the song ‘Drew Barrymore’ speak highly to feelings of self-doubt and insecurity, recurring themes throughout this ensemble that often simulates a feeling of reading pages of her diary. CTRL focuses on the fear of not having control within relationships, sexuality, and oneself. It helped us to explore feelings of desire, love, infidelity and heartbreak with an openness that negates the stigma that presents with talking about ‘feelings’.
As humans, we all at times struggle with this concept of control– We struggle with controlling our own lives (self-control), and at times, try to control the lives and behaviors of others. We have become control-freaks obsessed with perfection-ism and afraid of unpredictability. Society and social norms play a major role in enforcing the mindset that without control, we are lost. This is why SZA’s fresh approach, stylistic ‘less-is-more’ concept and open candor on CTRL is a welcome change to the facades that we are accustomed to seeing and hearing from artists of our millennial generation.
The albums relatability resonates with the masses and it comes wrapped in a perfect bow of musical production and lyrical ingenuity leaving us open and ready for more. In keeping with the central outlining of the word ‘Control’–“the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events ”–this album brings the realization that control is an elusive theory and ultimately many things are actually out of our hands.
This is ‘CTRL’ .