Music

Without SZA’s ‘CTRL,’ R&B Wouldn’t Be Where It Is Now

Released five years ago, SZA’s major label debut is a peerless piece of work. CTRL is an honest, compelling R&B album that wasn’t seen in the genre prior to its release.

In spring 2016, SZA announced that her new album — which, at the time, was titled A — would be released, “while everyone [was] still in a bathing suit” later that year year. CTRL, the R&B singer’s long-awaited major label debut, wouldn’t arrive until the following year. The album, which came out June 9th, 2017, was released during a period in which female mainstays in the genre were ready to elevate their sound.

Rihanna’s ANTI, released in February of 2016, rejected the traditional pop formula that defined her previous work to offer what’s arguably her best project to date, deeply exploring genres like psychedelic soul and alternative R&B over synth-rock beats. Beyoncé’s magnum opus Lemonade, released in April of 2016, centered Black women’s pain and freedom across various mediums that set the standard for music storytelling. Then, in the fall of 2016, Solange released A Seat at the Table — an album that was as political as it was meditative.

Black women in R&B were gracefully expanding the depths of the genre by releasing defiant, honest records that subsumed both resistance and healing. For Rihanna, that duality manifested in resisting expectations; for Beyoncé, it was resisting the assumed responsibility of a wife needing to support her husband; and for Solange, it was resisting racist, patriarchal systems and finding solace in community. 

And, for SZA, it was resisting the rules of modern dating and expectations of a “20 something” needing to have their lives figured out while welcoming her imperfections. She found comfort in discomfort on CTRL. Before the album’s release, SZA’s music was largely defined by airy vocals over down-tempo production and guarded songwriting. Her 2014 EP Z, heavily leaning on the stylistic influences of alternative R&B, had a domineering ethereal vibe that limited how personal SZA could be in her lyrics. She was elusive. But CTRL posed as the antithesis of the singer’s mysterious quality of the past. She completely let her guard down, encouraging listeners to do the same.

“I’m exposing a lot of skeletons of mine — things that were tough to talk about and tough to even accept were happening,” she said in that 2016 interview.“I feel like when you make your discomfort available to everyone else, it allows everyone to deal with the discomfort.”

Five years later, the singer’s intimacy with that discomfort is still as relatable as it was when the album dropped. CTRL is a masterpiece. It’s an album that features unfiltered lyrics about sex, love, and insecurities and paints a story of a young Black woman who isn’t afraid to air her relationship woes, while admitting that she still has room to grow. “Supermodel,” the album’s opener, cements that theme for the 14-track LP. The single, backed by gloomy guitar chords, starts with a skit from SZA’s mom, who briefly talks about her fear of not having control before SZA boldly dives into an IRL experience where she confesses she messed with an ex’s close friend after he cheated on her. “Let me tell you a secret/I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy/Why you in Vegas all up on Valentine’s Day,?” she sings with the candor of a scorned woman who knows she deserves better.

Although she knows she needs to leave the relationship, she ponders why she wasn’t good enough for him to stay. The track is a brilliant introduction, setting the tone for an album that becomes a battleground for SZA’s romantic insecurities and worries about aging. SZA, then 27, gave listeners front-row seats to exactly what was on her mind. 

CTRL is just as much a thorough critique on modern dating as it is on herself. On “Prom,” a track adorned with disco-infused synths, the singer contemplates about getting older and wonders why she’s not at the pace of her peers. The soothing, pop-tinged “Normal Girl” finds SZA yearning for that picture-perfect relationship while “Love Galore” and “The Weekend” feature the singer wanting the opposite of that (“My man is my man, is your man/Heard it’s her man too,” she sings on the latter). The Kendrick Lamar-assisted “Doves in the Wind” celebrates female sexual autonomy while SZA expresses her desire to not be solely viewed by what her body can offer.

Nearly all of the dating troubles that young women often face are dissected on CTRL. The cheating. The hookups. The hookups that turn to situationships. The breakups. The breakups that turn into heartbreak. But SZA didn’t want pity. Instead, she found power in immense introspection and self-discovery. Her enthusiasm to explore all of those themes in an unflaggingly raw flair created an honest, compelling R&B album that wasn’t really seen in the genre prior to its release. 

CTRL marked the first time in recent memory when an R&B singer wasn’t afraid to be deeply vulnerable about her relationship fears and self-esteem. It’s one thing to lament the pain of a breakup — which is a powerful act — but it’s another to dissect the depths of that pain and attempt to understand why it affirms insecurities that you want to suppress. CTRL aces the latter. The album begs the question: “If I’m only able to find freedom in a strictly sexual relationship with a partner and don’t find the same success in the romance that I want, is there something wrong with me?” “Drew Barrymore”, a track introduced by an alluring tambourine beat that re-enters on the chorus, is the finest example of that. She swiftly changes the tone to wondering why she can’t have the relationship she needs: “I’m so ashamed of myself think I need therapy/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.”

On “Garden (Say It Like Dat),” SZA further explores those insecurities and how it creates a toxic pattern of codependency between her and a partner. She needs someone, anyone to remind her of what makes her special because she’s unable to do it for herself . “Call me on my bullshit/Lie to me and say my booty getting bigger if it aint,” is a comical, striking line on the single because she’s OK with a partner lying about how big a body part is while not being ok with them not holding her accountable for being disingenuous. 

“Normal Girl” sees the singer hoping that she could be “the type of girl that you take over to mama/The type of girl, I know my daddy, he’d be proud of.” But is she proud of herself? Is the type of girl she’d take to see her mom? On CTRL, she doesn’t think so. SZA fearlessly exposed her low self-esteem. In fact, she’s empowered by it because it gives her the nudge to understand it’s ok to have those fears, which she does effortlessly on “Pretty Little Birds.” She shared all of the nuances of her shortcomings and was still optimistic on overcoming them. It’s that sheer vulnerability and acceptance that made CTRL peerless. 

The album didn’t sound like any of its forebears, either. Throughout CTRL, SZA took the blues of Mary J. Blige and paired it with electronic production and a unique vocal technique to offer catchy R&B songs that were risky yet well-suited for radio airplay. The flow she employed on the album made her vocals on the song as interesting as the lyrics. Her vocal cadences and tone were defined by her proclivity for drawn-out vowel sounds, making runs out of one to two words that are hard to forget and singing syllables as if they’re separate words (as she does seamlessly throughout “Supermodel.”)

CTRL debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart and received five Grammy nominations (although she didn’t take home any awards that night, a grave misstep by the Recording Academy). In 2018, the album was certified platinum. Commercial success aside, the CTRL’s cultural impact is far-reaching. The album laid the foundation for a brand of R&B that has a penchant for raw and relatable storytelling. How freely an artist can reveal their personal blemishes regarding love, sex and heartbreak and allowing listeners to do the same in an orderly sequence is now a necessity for a great R&B album. It’s hard to hear Summer Walker’s Over It, Ari Lennox’s Shea Butter Baby or even Jazmime Sullivan’s Grammy-winning Heaux TalesR&B albums honestly depicting love’s fragilities — and not hear CTRL’s influence. 

SZA’s CTRL is still brave five years later. Its records are daringly triumphant, authentic and vulnerable. By embracing her imperfections, SZA gave space for other young Black women to find comfort in their own. CTRL’s plot understands that Black women are rarely given the chance to be messy, flawed human beings. The album beautifully unearths the stereotype of Black women expected to be well-comported. And as we wait for her heavily-anticipated sophomore album, the legacy of her major label debut shouldn’t be forgotten.

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DeAsia Paige is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. Her work covers music, culture and identity and has been featured in publications like VICE, The Nation , Blavity, and Bitch. You can find her on Twitter: @deasia_paige 

DeAsia Paige

DeAsia Paige is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. Her work covers music, culture and identity and has been featured in publications like VICE, The Nation , Blavity, and Bitch.

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