Disclaimer: I've listened to this album approximately 20 times since its release.
It's been nearly two weeks since SZA released Ctrl, her critically-acclaimed debut studio album, and there are still many aspects of SZA's sound, artistry, and style that remains to be unpacked. Upon first listening to Ctrl, SZA's new, unapologetic sound slaps you right in the face and makes you wonder, "Is this the same SZA?".
Well, no, it isn't, and SZA has made that very clear. During an interview with The Breakfast Club, SZA revealed "This album is like a release from all the last four years I haven't been doing music. I've been burying friends, burying family members, burying weight. The way I feel about myself........I've just been growing as a human being, and I didn't even realize that I was just like kind of in a box". Besides her physical appearance changing with the weight loss (SZA admitted that she was once 200 lbs.), it isn't a riddle to claim that SZA has definitely grown and that is genuinely reflected on Ctrl.
I already knew that I absolutely loved SZA's style with her beautiful big hair, baggy clothes, and unparalleled alternative R&B sound. But I didn't realize how much I loved it until listening to Ctrl. In fact I love her even more. It was so honest and authentic that it made me feel like SZA was definitely more comfortable being herself now, which is something that I didn't find when listening to prior mixtapes. Both S and Z reflect a woman who isn't comfortable with sharing her feelings and thoughts because she fears that people (especially men) won't accept her for who she is.
Her fear is blatantly shown in "Ice Moon" from S in which she sings (metaphorically through the fantasy of an ice moon) about being afraid to be in love again because of prior relationships and afraid that she'll never find a soul mate. Before Ctrl, SZA's music was just like that----- defined by her metaphoric and figurative illustrations about love and life, always leaving fans and listeners wondering what's really going on in SZA's mind. But Ctrl was an exit from all of that.
The album became a departure from this ethereal sound and style that SZA used in her music to mask her feelings, and I think women do that often. Sometimes, women, especially black women because of the oppression and stereotypes that we face, feel as if we have to mask ourselves in order to maintain a certain image that will be deemed respectable for others.
SZA basically said, "Fuck all that" and lyrically expressed that it's ok to not be ok; it's ok to not have it all together; it ok to not be in control all the time. She explains that she is ok with not being the girl that a guy would take home to his parents. And she hit us with that vibe in the very first song of the album, "Supermodel" in which SZA confesses that she slept with her man's friend because he was treating her like shit. Later in the song, she claims that not even his ill treatment toward her could erase her sentiment of still wanting to be with him, which is a narrative that all women can relate to.
SZA went on to control and take back the narrative of heartbreak with "The Weekend", which breaks down the borders of R&B. Typically, women express how hurt or broken men leave them, and that's reflected in nearly every R&B song ever made by a woman (something that makes music like Mary J. Blige's so impactful). But SZA basically took back that motif to prove that women have the right to control what they need from men in any moment of their life. She talks about having power over men in being the side chick when she sings the chorus, "My man is my man is your man heard it's her man too. My man is her man is your man. Heard that's her man Tuesday and Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. I just keep him satisfied through the weekend". By explaining how all of these women need something from this one man (and essentially how he belongs to each of them), it takes the power away from him through all of his lies and wrongdoing and empowers women. SZA brilliantly molded the message in reminding women that men certainly don't need to have the control in the relationship.
However, while SZA is in the driver's seat of her life, she admits that he has crashed many times. In songs like "Pretty Little Birds" and "Twenty Something", SZA genuinely reveals that she isn't perfect and is still figuring her life out. But, she's content with that. I think the reason why everyone could immediately relate to Ctrl is because SZA was simply ok with exposing her flaws. In fact, she embraced them, which is something that a lot of black women struggle with. It's hard to expose personal flaws when society has created this perception that you're already flawed or when history hasn't done anything but create certain flaws and black men continue to perpetuate a narrative that we aren't good enough.
But SZA has expressed that although she is still struggling in maintaining control, she'll be damned if she lets another man have the power to take it from her. Ctrl poses as that message for all women. More than that, it's a positive turning point in SZA's artistry. Reflecting herself, her music has become more straightforward and honest, and that makes it more sonically pleasing.
Ctrl is similar to what Good Girl Gone Bad did for Rihanna or what I Am..... Sasha Fierce did for Beyonce or what Baduizm did for Erykah Badu------heightening their careers. But unlike them, Ctrl is simply SZA and she isn't afraid to do it her own way anymore.