Album Review: ‘Ctrl’ by SZA

This June will mark five years since R&B songstress SZA’s iconic debut album, Ctrl, was released to widespread critical acclaim. I first heard one of her singles, “Love Galore,” back in high school, but it wasn’t until this past year that I finally sat down and listened to the entire album. And yeah, it’s been on replay ever since.

While in an interview with The Breakfast Club radio show about the album’s title, SZA explained, “Ctrl is a concept. I’ve lacked control my whole life and I think I’ve craved it my whole life. I couldn’t really arrive at it and now, I’m not really looking to arrive at it anymore,” she said. “I’m just happy to be present… If you try to control a future moment, it’s impossible. There’s no such thing as control anyway. It’s just a concept, a word, a fantasy. But if you focus on the way you feel in the now and what you do with the now, I feel like it leads to having true control in the future.”

Here’s my track-by-track review of what I believe to be one of the most influential alternative R&B albums to date.

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Nic Bezzina / The New York Times

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1. Supermodel

The opening track of Ctrl is a guitar-driven, jealousy-ridden ballad in which SZA confesses her insecurities about her ex-boyfriend leaving her for “prettier women,” asserting “you know I need too much attention for sh** like that.” Out of revenge, she also reveals she has been secretly sleeping with her ex-boyfriend’s friends because he left her on Valentine’s Day – a lyric SZA later confirmed to be a true story.

2. Love Galore (feat. Travis Scott)

SZA’s collaboration with Travis Scott finds her reflecting on a past relationship, for whom she still has feelings with despite him being with another woman. Her remaining feelings of love for her ex-partner keep her interested in him despite feeling carefree and striving to take ownership of her life. The line, “Got me lookin’ forward to weekends with you, baby,” alludes to a later track on Ctrl, “The Weekend.”

3. Doves In The Wind (feat. Kendrick Lamar)

“Doves In The Wind” is one of multiple collaborations between the Top Dawg Entertainment artists, including “Babylon” in 2014 and “All The Stars” in 2018. This song is probably one of SZA’s most sexually assertive songs on the album. Though she recognizes what she has to offer in a relationship in terms of sexuality, she also emphasizes other important aspects of dating and muses about the things people will do to acquire intimacy.

4. Drew Barrymore

SZA released “Drew Barrymore” at the beginning of 2017 as the lead single off Ctrl. The song’s lyrics reveal her jealousy toward her ex and his new girlfriend, to whom SZA compares herself. She question her worth and wonders if her relationship with her ex was ever about more than just sex. “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. This memorable slow jam is an anthem for any woman who struggles with inferiority and insecurity.

Christopher Polk / Getty Images

5. Prom

“Prom” is one of SZA’s most vulnerable moments on the album, as she sings about her fears of growing older and apologizes to her man for the areas in which she lacks maturity. She realizes he’s being patient and worries he will leave her if he gets tired of waiting for her to commit to him; however, SZA acknowledges her gratefulness and appreciation for her partner. The song is reminiscent in style of 1980s pop/disco music.

6. The Weekend

My personal favorite track on the album by far, “The Weekend” finds SZA exploring her role as “the other woman” who only gets to see her love interest on the weekends, while he spends the weekdays with his girlfriend. I find the lyrics powerful because SZA unashamedly sheds light on the complicated emotions of knowing she is not the only woman in her man’s life. The steamy R&B song is the third single off Ctrl.

7. Go Gina

“Go Gina” is a sassy response to the judgment and criticism of others, “Gina” being an uptight fictional character whom SZA accuses of bringing her down and spreading rumors about her. My favorite lyrics, “I belong to nobody / Hope it don’t bother you / You can mind your business / I belong to nobody / Try not to disturb / Mind my business,” show her desire to live independently of opinions coming from those outside of her inner circle.

8. Gardens (Say It Like Dat)

Another sweetly vulnerable song, SZA expresses her love for her man while admitting her fears of intimacy. “Open your heart up / Hoping I’ll never find out that you’re anyone else / ‘Cause I love you just how you are / Hope you never find out who I really am,” she croons on the chorus. While SZA acknowledges her insecurities of revealing her truest self in her relationship, she appreciates the ways in which her partner keeps her grounded and calm through her anxiety and uncertainties.

Omar Vega / FilmMagic

9. Broken Clocks

On the third single released off Ctrl, “Broken Clocks,” SZA sings about the tensions between her responsibilities at work and her personal life. Thematically, she explores the concept of living outside of time constraints and balancing her relationships. Lyrics such as “Better day than yesterday / I just take it day by day / Never hearing what they say / I just do it my way” show a self-assured side of SZA as she attempts to live with a positive outlook.

10. Anything

“Anything” finds SZA in a place of questioning her decisions and beliefs – “Maybe I should kill my inhibition / Maybe I’ll be perfect in a new dimension / Maybe I should pray a little harder / Or work a little smarter.” She also wonders if her partner truly appreciates her, with the lyric, “Do you even know I’m alive?” repeating through the song’s outro.

11. Wavy (Interlude) [feat. James Fauntleroy]

The shortest track on the album, “Wavy” is a brief interlude featuring vocals from hip hop producer James Fauntleroy. Lyrically, the song reflects themes of carefree living similar to “Go Gina” and “Broken Clocks.”

12. Normal Girl

On “Normal Girl,” another favorite track of mine, SZA sings about the impressions men have of her. She feels they are attracted to her sexual aggression, but as time goes on, they become bored of her after realizing she is just another normal girl. Lyrics such as, “Wish I was the type of girl that you take over to mama / The type of girl, I know my daddy, he’d be proud of,” further illustrate SZA’s dissatisfaction with herself.

Kevin Mazur / Getty Images

13. Pretty Little Birds (feat. Isaiah Rashad)

This collaboration with Isaiah Rashad follows their previous song “Warm Winds” from SZA’s 2014 EP,  Z. She compares herself to a “phoenix” and a “pretty little bird,” painting herself in a more feminine light compared to her previous track, “Drew Barrymore.” The track finds her expressing her affection toward her partner and reflecting on “hitting the window a few times,” alluding to previous failures and heartbreaks in her life.

14. 20 Something

The album closes in a similar style as its opener, with a guitar-led ballad highlighting SZA’s soulful, yearning vocals. On “20 Something,” the singer reflects on similar themes explored in “Prom” earlier on the album – fearing the future, growing up, and self-discovery.

Up Next

Following the 64th Annual Grammy Awards – at which SZA won her first Grammy with Doja Cat for their collaboration, “Kiss Me More” – she announced to the press plans to release her new album very soon. “I actually just finished it up in Hawaii recently. So, turning it in.” The singer even posted, “Not going to any more awards or events till my album out.”

 

But until then, enjoy listening to Ctrl on replay with me.

 

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