Harnessing an Illusion: SZA Sings The Song of Herself on ‘Ctrl’

SZA

Rendered from growing pains both personal and professional, Ctrl is transcendent, and it stands as SZA’s most poignant project to date.

The cover of SZA’s debut album Ctrl pictures Top Dawg Ent.’s lone songstress seated amongst a pile of deceased analog monitors and computer keyboards — choice symbolism from a self-proclaimed internet and social media cynic. Perhaps jaded by once-hasty Twitter fingers or possibly nostalgic for a time when things weren’t nearly as magnified within the public eye, the 26-year-old admitted to Complex’s “Everyday Struggle” trio that she avoids checking her social pages at all costs, and that she even seeks out her meanest and messiest of friends when deciding whether or not to post certain material.

Maybe it’s because she didn’t even really ask for this. Growing up a participant in dance and theater, the woman born Solána Rowe didn’t consider singing (or even fame for that matter) a viable route until a serendipitous encounter with Top Dawg president Terrence “Punch” Henderson at a 10 Deep clothing event in New York. In fact, she’s the only musician in her family. Following the wishes of orthodox Muslim parents she pursued higher education, bouncing around to schools like Long Island University and Delaware State before flunking out on purpose and going full-bore towards a career as a singer/songwriter.

Rowe was raised at a sonic fork in the road — her father pushing the sounds of jazz and Ella Fitzgerald while her older sister introduced her to hip-hop and other contemporary jams, an impasse she described on The Breakfast Club as deciding between “either jazz, or guns and butter.” On her first project, 2012’s See.SZA.Run., she navigated cosmic, industrial boom bap from Brandun DeShay and a host of others. Then in 2013 she took another step forward with her S EP, the warm dreaminess of her vocals and a developing pen full of metaphors proving her two most endearing potentials. Top Dawg signed she and Isaiah Rashad not much later in July of 2013, and the two moved in together as they prepped their inaugural major label releases.

SZA

SZA and Top Dawg labelmate Isaiah Rashad candidly embrace at Rashad’s Lil Sunny Tour at The Observatory in Orange County, California. The two signed to TDE in the summer of 2013, and they were roommates while recording their inaugural TDE projects. Image Credit: SZA

They fought (pettily she admits) as roommates upon moving and recording out in California. Likening themselves as brother and sister, the duo delivered a shock to the TDE system, SZA boasting an Indie R&B wave, while Zay, a Tennessee native, waxed poetically of the dirty south through lenses of Scarface, Master P, and The Dungeon Family. They became mere pieces of the Top Dawg puzzle just as founder Anthony Tiffith was asserting the label as California’s hip-hop dream team. Not quite Kung Fu (or even Cornrow) Kenny yet, Dot still presented as the label’s visionary franchise piece, ScHoolboy Q a gangster rap blue chipper, and Ab-Soul and Jay Rock as vaunted West Coast wordsmiths in their own rights. All the while, the TDE queen has stressed the immense fellowship she shares with each of her male labelmates.

And yet, she prefers to move alone. Take for example the chorus on Ctrl’s “Go Gina,” where (admittedly stoned) she tells an ex “I belong to nobody / Hope it don’t bother you / You can mind your business. Ironically, in her relationship with her label, she’s compromised on freedoms she once took in her creative efforts. She described a much more lackadaisical recording process on her earlier tapes to “Everyday Struggle,” and admitted that with her major label debut she would constantly compare her release to canonical efforts like Jill Scott’s Who is Jill Scott? and Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind. Long rumored to be titled A, an album in which all her “dirty laundry was on the line,” she planned for a summer ‘16 release that never came to fruition. Frustrated both creatively and emotionally (and, again, admittedly stoned), she spouted off on Twitter, calling it quits and telling fans that Punch “can release my album if he ever feels like it.” 

Having released her TDE debut Z EP two years prior, her emotions had reached a crescendo. Another victim of the infamous Top Dawg release jam, she watched Q, Zay, and Soul all drop heat as she sat on the shelf, her vow that she’d drop “while everyone is still in a bathing suit” proving hollow. She wasn’t pleasing herself sonically, she wasn’t having fun, and she wasn’t in control — a crossroads that sparked the direction and completion of the album.

She calls the mere idea of control an “illusion,” a gradual understanding that she’s come to peace with through Ctrl’s recording process. You can only control that within your immediate locus — that within your immediate being — and SZA’s chosen to let the universe do what it may. In her album booklet she includes a “Morning List,” a docket of sorts to ensure a positive start to the day. Things like “THANK GOD,” “WASH FACE,” and “CALL MOM” are scrawled across the page, along with mindful breathing instructions and multiple reminders to stretch. It’s a formula for success that she’s implemented after a rut where she was “hyper-editing” herself and life “wasn’t making any sense.”

Rendered from growing pains both personal and professional, Ctrl is transcendent, and it stands as SZA’s most poignant project to date. What were once loose and unfurling figures of speech are now refined and extended, a powerful voice that too often played second fiddle in mists of synthesized production is blossoming amongst an increase in live instrumentation, and a concentration and direction that was absent from past EP’s appears across each of the album’s 15 tracks.

An ongoing struggle for balance, she claims and relinquishes control impulsively throughout the project. It’s in this type of succession that the album gains traction and authenticity. Gone is the hyper-editing with the vagina dedicated and Kendrick Lamar featuring “Doves in the Wind,” and ever present are the words and emotions of a seasoned-yet-still-learning lover on “Broken Clocks.” She juxtaposes soundscapes and overarching moods in an order that mimic the polarity of emotions of those in the heart of their twenties. Take for instance the aforementioned “Go Gina,” a declaration of independence that’s slammed back to Earth by the ensuing vulnerability of album opus “Garden (Say It Like Dat).”  

Body conscious and cognizant of her flawed attachment she admits “I need your support,” paranoid her lover could possibly be cheating with a chick with a much fatter a** and much quieter cry for attention. Her anxieties are palpable on the song’s chorus as she belts “You’ll never love me, but I believe you when you say it like that,” and listeners are thrust into the emotions of a scene where personal insecurities are able to derail a budding partnership.

Adversely, other tracks like the single “Love Galore” featuring Travis Scott, and the intro “Supermodel,” showcase her s*****g on exes. Whereas past tracks like S EP’s “THE ODYSSEY” may have relied on well placed samples to construct SZA’s sonic atmosphere, an attitude exists within her lyrical content and delivery this go around that bring her message straight from the source. She’s telling no one’s truth but her own on Ctrl, which in turn has allowed her music to reach unparalleled levels of liberation.

And while she takes another step forward in her ability to ride hip-hop hats on “Wavy” with song-writing secret weapon James Fauntleroy, her greatest achievement lies in a rising comfortability with live instruments. Over a melancholy guitar and the depressed string section of “Drew Barrymore” she poses as a self-conscious suburban starlet, while on the stripped down guitar of “20 Something” she channels shades of Frank Ocean, closing the album out with a tempered optimism that she’s come to comprehend.

Soundbites from the matriarchs of her family act as a binding agent, her mother explaining what control represents in life, and her grandmother providing timely relationship advice. Telling the “Everyday Struggle” crew of her craft, “I want to be able to reveal my purpose to myself, fulfill it, and use this as a catalyst,” it’s obvious that Ctrl is just as much an alleviation of pain as it is a manifestation of SZA’s artistic destiny. And regardless of how long it took, now she realizes that the first step of control is admitting that there’s no such thing.

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