When SZA sings a tune, there is almost always a magical moment when her staccato melodies stretch into raspy riffs the ear might confuse for drum rolls. Perhaps her foundation in dance and gymnastics primed her ear for accentuating percussive undercurrents and adroitly contorting the instrument of her voice to match her emotional tonality. Her voice has seemingly contradictory qualities — it is a stiff, piercing snare and a thick, enveloping syrup, a voice made up somehow of both sharp high-hat jabs and sweet honeysuckle nectar.
Prior to the recent release of her full-length studio debut, Ctrl, SZA’s music — starting with 2012’s See.SZA.Run and her subsequent EPs S and Z — used unorthodox techniques to convey the circuitry of her emotions. But even when the stories in her music felt more like a vague stream of consciousness than a narrative, the New Jersey native was able to get across a portrait of off-kilter loneliness: “I apologize for waiting to tell you for so long, I am not human / I am made of bacon, fairy tales, pixie dust, I don’t feel,” she sang on “AFTERMATH,” in 2013.
These days, there is hardly any obscurity in her music. In addition to reducing the static, reverb, and white noise that buoyed — and sometimes overpowered — her voice previously, she also takes Ctrl as an opportunity to strip her emotionally resonant images down to their fleshly centers. SZA has discussed her desire to mirror in the studio the bodily freedom she experiences onstage: “I had to get more involved with my sound,” she told Rolling Stone recently. “I had to just say what was on my mind, not find a way to hide it behind the boards.”
Being real is rare because it’s scary. (Or is it scary because realness is rare? It’s hard to tell.) SZA struts out front and center on the half-freestyle, half-sing-song opener “Supermodel.” The song positions her sauntering on a runway with a downward slope, beginning resolutely ("I’m writing this letter to let you know / I’m really leaving / And no I’m not keeping your shit"), but steadily accelerates toward a wanting: “I could be your supermodel if you believe / If you see it in me, see it in me, see it in me / I don’t see myself.” Ctrl is packed with similarly quick pivots from quiet cataloguing of past relationships with corrosive men to articulating how she’s reconstituted as a woman, free and undeniably her own.
The album’s first single, “Drew Barrymore,” is a soft ballad parsing out the ways alienation can infect longstanding relationships. For SZA, the solitude sickness begins with herself (“I get so lonely, I forget what I’m worth”), but she quickly recognizes the strain in her lover: “We get so lonely, we pretend that this works.” Lonesomeness within a relationship can make love feel like a drowning. “Do you really wanna love me down / Give it to me like you say you do?” she asks, then turns the question on its head: “Do you really love me / Or just wanna love me down, down, down?” The lyrics evoke desperation, but SZA’s delivery is steadfast. She knows it's time to “accept the party is over.”
SZA might feel any measure of sadness, frustration, or grief in retelling her stories of heartbreak, but this album isn’t really about men at all. As hard as it will be for the bruhs to accept, Ctrl has a lot less to do with us than we’d like to believe. At its center, the album appreciates the process of sifting through emotional wreckage and pulling out a love for herself, beyond the reach of a woman-hating world. “Go Gina” reflects on an environment that unquestionably hates determined women. SZA’s been “Grinding, grinding, grinding / Learning on the low key, shining / Tryin’ to keep to myself,” but she's jostled out of her flow when silly people attempt to solve her perceived stiffness in a self-serving, condescending way: "Damn Gina, damn Gina / Them jeans, they must be uptight / You need some get right." Tisha Campbell’s role of Gina on the ’90s sitcom Martin is a strategic surrogate for the bullshit that women endure to be wholly their own. “I belong to nobody / Hope it don’t bother you,” she croons, knowing with all confidence that in this world, a black woman with any measure of authority or autonomy is a terrifying prospect.
It’s precisely this ethic that distances SZA from others on the album's third single, “Broken Clocks,” wherein the fulfillment she feels in her work and life proves to be more promising than old flings: “Been about three years since I dated you / Why you still talking ’bout me like we together? / I moved on for the better.” The song is capital R&B, with SZA’s fluttery and strained harmonies hovering over each bass stroke.
Later, the spare electronic thump that begins “Anything” gives way to a self-referential drumline march outro, with SZA repeating the refrain, “Do do you even know I’m alive? / Do you even know I, I...” The song's open production, coupled with the repetition of “I,” suggests that the question has multiple recipients. “I was thinking of at least five people,” she told the Breakfast Club of the song. “Most of this album is me talking to me.” It makes sense that SZA would pull back on her production aesthetic in an effort to hear her own voice. The production on Ctrl is mostly handled by a cadre of familiar faces, like longtime collaborators The Antydote and Carter Lang, but there's also an assist from Pharrell on “Supermodel,” and most importantly, names like Memphis producer THANKGOD4CODY, LoveDragon, and Best Kept Secret all contributing to SZA’s cross-stitching of soft rock, pop-disco, R&B, and humid swamp music.
SZA is hesitant when it comes to categorizations. And for an artist teeming with inspiration — from Nirvana to the Alabama Shakes — it stands to reason that her only claimed inheritance is of the love of her mother and grandmother. The women add their voices to Ctrl via interlude-ish phone calls in which both elders describe how the world reduces women by either calling them stupid or looking to own them. In relationships and in music, as depicted on “Normal Girl,” SZA works to rid herself of the reductive labels heaped upon her by people who mean only to consume her and spit her out. The men in her life “like it when I be aggressive,” but aren’t proud enough to bring her home to meet the folks.
This reading makes for a clever juxtaposition to how SZA is often understood in the public eye: Fans and critics alike paint her as a figurative Badu-lite — a cool, down chick attuned to her sexuality but happy to spark up some green and binge-watch Orange Is the New Black. “Normal Girl” presents this image as an ideal she can never meet because of the ways her forwardness has manifested in personal relationships. The song ends reassured and optimistic, with SZA looking forward to a year where she’ll “be livin’ so good / Won’t remember no pain, I swear / Before that you figured out, that I was just a normal girl.”
When SZA sings, you can hear her knowledge of how many women — especially black women, often in solitude — trudge through hate with only fleeting support from others. Her interrogation of narrow visions of body-positivity on “Garden (Say It Like Dat)” is particularly resonant. Her critique starts out personal ("Lie to me and say my booty gettin’ bigger even if it ain’t"), but her scope expands to consider other hypocrisies as well: “I know you’d rather be laid up with a big booty / Body hella positive ’cause she got a big booty.” SZA is disappearing in the eyes of her lover, despite this person's broad claims of acceptance. But she knows acceptance and advocacy aren’t the same things.
SZA’s music has often been classified as ungrounded soul that made up in ambience what it lacked in narrative specificity. Yet this album fashions her not merely as a mistress of vibes, but as a literary artist akin to Audre Lorde in her depiction of the interiorities of black womanhood. On album standout “The Weekend,” she invokes an ethic of companionship between women that rewrites male-female power dynamics in relationships. Fragile boys will take the song’s chorus — “My man is my man is your man / Heard that’s her man ... I just keep him satisfied through the weekend” — as SZA signing off on situationships, but the song is more political than polyamorous. She puts forth the idea that men aren’t worth arguing over, harkening back to Lorde's classic 1983 essay "Eye to Eye." According to Lorde, black women, as with any person “growing up, metabolizing hatred like daily bread,” reassert that hatred outwardly to those with the same faces as their own. “As Black women, we have shared so many similar experiences. Why doesn’t this commonality bring us together instead of setting us at each others' throats with weapons well-honed by familiarity?” SZA, too, reminds us of the liberating power of putting down one's weapons and speaking to one another, intimately, across barriers propped up by patriarchy.
On Ctrl, intimacy isn’t a currency, but a gift packed with secrets. What matters most is the strength SZA wields as she looks back at her time on this earth so far and celebrates having survived its lessons with a whole heart. Or, as Lorde might say, “If I look at my most vulnerable places and acknowledge the pain I have felt, I can remove the source of that pain from my enemies' arsenals ... and survival is the greatest gift of love.”