Label: Top Dawg Entertainment
Released: June 2017
“How do I satisfy myself sonically?" was SZA's guiding inquiry when creating CTRL, but the question could just as easily been, simply: “How do I satisfy myself?”
After several uneven EPs that failed to break through to a larger audience, CTRL offers what S and Z lack—fully realized, cohesive production, and a wildly vulnerable, crystalline snapshot of the 27-year-old singer. It also shows you who she’s striving to become—as an artist and as a human.
"I was editing myself," she said of her previous work. "But now I've given up on that.” Freed of any limiting guardrails, SZA presents us with a raw offering, presented with open hands. Her sonic ambitions are outweighed only by a desire to create something true to self. On CTRL, SZA alternates between knowing exactly what she’s got (“I think I’m bad as hell”) and suffocating self-doubt. “Do you even know I’m alive?” she asks over and over on “Anything.” And, on “Supermodel” a moment of sharp reflection: “Why I can't stay alone just by myself?”
This hard earned self-awareness is most evident on “Broken Clocks.” “I've had a thing for dirty shoes since I was 10, love dirty men alike,” SZA admits. She sounds like someone who has a good therapist and is acutely aware of her own triggers, like she could easily enumerate them on command.
Desire can be felt just as much as it’s heard in her lush, husky vocals. On “Love Galore,” she isn’t crass, she’s just...direct: “I came to your city, lookin’ for lovin’ ’n licky ’cause you promised to put it down.” She knows how to make sex work in her favor, how to own it. On “Doves in the Wind,” she offers a mantra for compartmentalizing—“Touch the booty if you like, I ain’t tripping on ya.” But the outro offers a more complicated reality: Great sex is the “only thing keepin’ me from droppin’ you right now.” Lust can rarely be kept under thumb; it can so easily careen out of control.
CTRL chronicles SZA’s quest to finally figure this life shit out. How to love without losing pieces of yourself, without sacrificing self respect. “I get so lonely, I forget what I'm worth” she drawls on “Drew Barrymore.” How to lose a lover with grace and, above all, the art of self forgiveness.
Lessons we all need to learn, really. Thankfully, we have SZA’s warm voice to carry us through it. —Shanté Cosme