Review #472: Ctrl, SZA

Karla Clifton
3 min readNov 27, 2023

#472: Ctrl, SZA

Firstly, that album cover is everything. I, too, want to lay down in a grassy field that doubles as a computer graveyard.

This studio debut was released in 2017, and it quickly became the second longest-charting R&B album by a female artist. (After Rihanna’s Anti, no less — though the album she released this year was even more successful.) SZA, who took a cue from the Wu-Tang Clan in naming herself, was raised in New Jersey by a Christian mother and Muslim father. She’s talked about the difficulty of wearing a hijab to school, especially in post-9/11 New Jersey, but has also talked about her faith and her love for her parents’ faith. And she honors her upbringing all throughout this record — see “Anything,” where she opines, Maybe I should pray a little harder/ Or work a little smarter. She also features several clips of her mother talking about her opinions on life, happiness, and (of course) control. Check her on the smart, introspective “20 Something,” when she waxes poetic: And if it’s an illusion, I don’t want to wake up. I’m gonna hang on to it. Because the, the, the alternative is an abyss. She also gets a pretty great clip from her grandma on “Garden (Say It Like Dat),” who wisely states: You don’t have shit to say to me, I ain’t got shit to say to you. Advice for the ages.

But while the overarching theme here is control, the underlying theme is anxiety. In fact, Ctrl was first slated for release in 2015, but SZA was self-admittedly “paralyzed” by her anxiety and became so obsessed with reworking the whole thing that her record company finally, physically took away her hard drive two years later. She anxiously questions her own attractiveness (“Supermodel”) and her maturity (“Prom”). See also “Go Gina” and “Wavy.” And let’s not forget the excellent “Drew Barrymore,” a love letter to feeling clingy and unwanted and trying your best anyway, which doesn’t say Barrymore’s name at any point but is spiritually inspired by Never Been Kissed. SZA said that she wrote Barrymore a “long, dramatic letter” talking about what her movies meant to her, and Barrymore returned the compliment by appearing in the music video!

SZA’s vibes are impeccable, loungey soul mixed with spacey disco. It’s astonishingly cohesive, too — even when she’s just singing about men, you can feel the restless longing for control. “Love Galore” with Travis Scott has her lamenting her boyfriend’s bad behavior, and also her own; “Doves in the Wind” says frankly, Real n***** do not deserve p****. Okay then!! SZA isn’t afraid to be a little controversial. See also “The Weekend,” a song about getting over her feelings of discomfort with polyamory and deciding to own it. (A song that mercifully doesn’t feature The Weeknd.)

My favorite songs, though, were the ones where SZA forcefully defies her own anxiety. “Broken Clocks” has her defending her own erratic schedule and work habits, saying, Never hearing what they say/ I just do it my way. “Normal Girl” is a fakeout, where most of the song she regrets not being “normal” then comes to the conclusion that she’s just as normal as anyone else. And “Pretty Little Birds” compares her to a phoenix, celebrating her heartbreaks — The spiral down feels as good as the flight — and her future — My wings don’t spread like they used to/ But I wanna fly with you. An anxious perfectionist deciding that imperfection is okay? Get out of my head, SZA. I loved this.

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