Phenomenal Woman: The Vulnerability, Self-Awareness & Freedom Of SZA's 'CTRL'
SZA's honesty and sonic growth shines on her debut LP.
On the cover of SZA’s debut album, Ctrl, the songstress sits amongst a bed of broken computers far away from industrialism or man-made life. In some of her earlier interviews, the singer-songwriter explained the vision behind her artwork as a breakaway from our society’s dependence on technology—constantly hiding behind phone screens and social apps in order to express their thoughts and feelings. But SZA isn’t hiding. While her 2014 EP, Z, was a soulful introduction to her airy vocals and solid penmanship, she was still in many ways discovering her identity, both sonically and personally. But by contrast, her full-length LP seems to sing a different tune. Ctrl is a 14-track project of stripped down perfection, putting her deepest insecurities on the forefront, while displaying a new sense of confidence and freedom in her craft and self.
SZA’s vulnerability oozes from the speakers. “Drew Barrymore,” the album’s first single, which dropped in mid-January, is an emotionally-rich track that unravels her inhibitions and struggles with mental stability in a way that is both profound and honest. “I get so lonely I forget my worth… I’m so ashamed of myself I 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,” she sings as orchestral instrumentals fill the background. And her conscientiousness is matched by that on the hypnotic and sensitive “Garden (Say It Like Dat).” While the TDE artist sheds her reliance on technology, she doesn’t seem to break away from depending on a relationship on this one. On the chorus, SZA expresses her fear of being discovered for the person she truly is underneath the persona and in turn, never being capable of love. “Hope you’ll never find out who I really am/‘Cause you’ll never love me, you’ll never love me, you’ll never love me…” The thing that solidifies this as one of the top five tracks is SZA’s granny on the final 30 seconds, whose frankness on respecting one’s differences is both enlightening and comical.
While lyrically speaking, it’s hard to say confidently that every woman can relate to sleeping with their man’s friend because he ditched them for a trip to Vegas on Valentine’s Day, it’s easy to connect with her insightful reflection on a song like “Supermodel.” On the introspective acoustic ballad, the singer opens the single as a letter to an ex about her indiscretions. While she seems pretty spiteful with her agenda, she’s also forthcoming with her own flaws, posing questions to herself about her perpetual loneliness. “Why I can’t just stay alone by myself? Wish I was comfortable with myself,” she sings over synthetic guitar strings. SZA finds a bit more clarity on the percussion-filled, freeform number, “Prom.” There, she seems to find the answers to her own questions on loneliness, self-worth, and growth, which provides a nice balance for fans instead of leaving them with an overwhelming amount of uncertainty.
Her penmanship on the savory, country-fused single, “20 Something” runs deep. It’s as if she rips a page right out of her diary to lay down the vocals about the challenges of navigating her 20s, from having to pay bills to searching for love. Her breathy, raspy sound works well with the soft plucking guitar to provide rawness that will resonate with many. “Hopin’ my 20 somethings don’t end/Hopin’ to the rest of my friends/Prayin’ the 20 somethings don’t kill me,” she sings.
With self-awareness and vulnerability comes freedom, and despite showing some resistance in letting go (prior to the album release, she alluded to wanting to quit the music biz and not drop the album), SZA manages to free herself, while offering a sliver of empowerment. At first listen, or even for those who chose not to look beyond the female-friendly lines like “done with these n***as/I don’t love these n***as” (“Love Galore”) or “n***as don’t deserve p***y” (“Doves in the Wind”), many would think this album is filled with anti-male anthems. But on the contrary, many of her songs are uplifting and aimed at taking back the control that she’s figuratively handed over to someone else. While some of that power is regained in denouncing the opposite sex at times, she also finds strength in the occasional vanity and supporting her girl gang. “Go Gina,” the invigorating song that has somewhat of a jazzy or open-mic feel to it, appropriately uses a reference to a catchphrase from the 90s sitcom Martin as a way to stress how good she looks. “The Weekend,” a song that should be a single, is a hidden gem and one that has a not-so-typical message of women empowerment. It might take a little digging to understand that—especially since it sounds like SZA is a side chick pitching the proposition to share one dude with another woman—but that’s not the point. Instead of giving the control over to the dude, who would be so lucky as to get two women for one, she’s forging a deal with the other woman that (hopefully) works for both of them. As she says at the end of the track as the instrumentals roll over into a more anthemic chant, “bright ideas, we got bright ideas.”
Even through her flaws, SZA describes herself as a “pretty little bird,” which accurately describes her career trajectory and unique talent. Likewise, there is no doubt this album will soar to the top (and hopefully the Grammys), and that her own growth will continue to reflect in her work. SZA is clearly in control of her career and fate. She still may be working through her identity and insecurities, which is natural for an artist who’s getting their footing in the industry, but Ctrl has definitely kick-started her journey in the right direction. It’s raw, soulful, rhythmic and uplifting in all the right places and will surely be a summer gift for old and new fans.