SZA’s (Solána Rowe) debut album, CTRL, is a glimpse into the minds of the sad girls that make up what’s known as the microwave generation, those girls who want things faster than fast—millennials. Beneath the selfies, the thirst traps posted on Instagram, and the Twitter rants, there are vulnerable women who yearn for relationship security, creative freedom, and self-esteem that’s not based solely on their physical appearance. For those of us in the phase of our lives where we are still figuring things out, CTRL offers exactly that: an emotionally riveting journey through love, creativity, heartbreak, all leading to an awakening.
What makes this album distinct from SZA’s previous works—See. SZA Run and S, which are both EPs—is that CTRL’s production demonstrates SZA’s control over a sound that’s uniquely her own: “airy emo”-meets-R&B. The sonics are deep but also vibrant—the sweetness of her passion-filled bellowing in track after track makes for a meeting of two happy mediums, which ultimately work well together.
Occupying a creative space within the confines and pressures of the 21st century has proven difficult for many of us, and this struggle is reflected in SZA’s work. My early 20s have seen me dealing with internal conflicts, messy situations, and battles with vices; as a creative black woman, I’ve learned that the pressures are harsher on us than on white women. Some of these pressures are self-inflicted, but others come from our support systems; those who think I should rule out a colorful, if shaky, career path because it won’t make me any money. I grew up unsure of what career path to follow due to my Caribbean and African-American roots, which placed demands upon me that I viewed as a bit stifling. My family didn’t want me to be a “starving artist,” but they also didn’t see the other ways in which I was once starving, and trying to fill myself up with vices.
I’ve drowned myself in infatuation—obsessions with the men who were supposed to be my type. These men write well, speak well, dress well—shouldn’t this suggest they had to mean well, too? I fell down rabbit holes for these men, losing myself along the way. My insecurities—I didn’t think I was pretty enough, didn’t think my body was thick enough, didn’t think my hair was long enough—affected how I allowed the numerous men in my life to treat me, like a revolving emotional vacuum; I was uncomfortable in my own skin. And though I’m still a work in progress, I take things day by day.
CTRL is SZA’s exploration through black womanhood and black femininity within the music industry, as she, too, takes it day by day. Her internal conflicts, self-esteem issues, and the ways in which she maneuvers through relationships are most prevalent on standouts like “Supermodel,” “Doves In The Wind” featuring Kendrick Lamar, “Love Galore” featuring Travis Scott, “The Weekend,” “Garden (Say It Like Dat),” and “Drew Barrymore.”
For women who have been conflicted about staying with someone or being alone, SZA shares her thoughts on dysfunctional relationships. Sex, emotions, and temporary lovers run rampant in the millennial generation, and SZA reflects this in her intro track, “Supermodel,” which presents CTRL as a rollercoaster ride that will be filled with insecurities, high moments, and a diary-esque exposé of love, pain, jealousy, and more.
This rollercoaster hits dizzying heights with “Doves In The Wind,” featuring Top Dawg Entertainment’s golden child Lamar, who joins SZA in speaking to the ways in which millennial women hide behind sexuality without experiencing intimacy. Sex sells, and SZA and Kendrick expose the ways men devalue women’s bodies while women battle with their complicated feelings about their sexuality, with SZA insisting that women see themselves as more than just sexual beings. This track speaks to pussy power, and how only certain lovers are special enough to get the “whole you” or the “whole box of chocolates.”
SZA’s exploration of insecurities, jealousy, and love, carry over into “Drew Barrymore,” which has lyrics that speak to any young woman who has ever felt those emotions: “Sorry I’m so clingy, I don’t mean to be a lot… Do you really love me or just want to love me down?”
The song that speaks most to me on CTRL is “The Weekend,” an exploratory track in which SZA sings of being with someone who already has a woman at home; it’s about the feeling of being satisfied with possessing only facets of someone because you know you can’t have the whole of them. It expresses that relatable feeling of yearning for more and the emotional trauma that comes with longing for someone you can’t have.
SZA sings of a phoenix in this album, and the feeling of rebirth is pervasive throughout the album’s experimental, boundary-pushing sound. While other women in R&B struggle to find their rightful place in the swift-moving music industry, Solána Rowe has found a platform of her own, upon which she sings of her woes, her lovers, and all that she—and we—still have to learn moving forward.