The Gentle Agony Of SZA Losing ‘CTRL’

Managing Editor, Music


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“I wrote this for one of the old me’s.”

I spent most of June falling asleep listening to SZA’s majestic debut album, CTRL. I was stuck in love with someone who didn’t love me back, and this record was the only thing that could lift me out of the sick self-loathing suck of the situation. Her anger paved the way for a place I couldn’t reach yet, her vision of a golden future was something I couldn’t yet imagine — I still wanted the past. The easy answer to any admission of pining for romantic love is always the same — love yourself ! — but CTRL grapples with the gritty, heartbreaking process of actually attempting that, and failing. Repeatedly.

Particularly in a society that continues to define women’s worth by their proximity to male attention, the lack of a romantic partner isn’t easily replaceable with good self-esteem, even if that’s readily accessible. (Spoiler alert: It’s not). It’s rare to brush with female loneliness that’s as brash, ballsy and beautifully articulated as the one Solana Rowe has given us. If this isn’t the best album of the year, it is indisputably in the top five.

I haven’t fallen asleep listening to music since I was a little girl, but this album invokes the same comfort level that music at night used to provide when I was a child. Or maybe I’ve reached a similar plateau of loneliness. My sister and I slept in twin bunk beds until I was about fifteen, and we listened to music every single night, wearing out whatever tape was making us feel the safest lately. Often, we listened to a tape of songs my dad recorded, a collection of worship songs he’d written and taped as a guide for the rest of the band to learn and perform at what amounts to a Christian festival. (I don’t think the performance ever even happened, which feels fitting.)

Designed as an instruction manual and performed at home as a labor of love, the tape is passionate and wandering, full of asides and brief notations about chord changes or other ideas my dad had about his half-formed songs. I think, in large part, we listened to it so often because it made us feel close to our dad, a man who could be warm and welcoming but was most often aloof and unavailable, unreliable and prone to angry outbreaks. On the tape, it was all tenderness, so we wore it out while the rest of the house slept, living in a gentle dream of what could’ve been. CTRL vocalized the pain of my current self, while reminding me of the pain of the old me.

SZA’s CTRL is not always gentle, but bears some of the same hallmarks as this early tape; it’s full of the same headstrong and devotion, peppered with asides and conversations provided by her mother and grandmother, it yearns and aches, self-flagellates, it burns with righteous anger and begs for a devotion that is never quite fulfilled. The crux of CTRL is letting go of these situations, a gentle agony that you can hear in every note.

Part of letting go of the pain from the past is shedding former selves, something SZA does again and again over the course of the album. Her disappointment and frustration with men — and herself — is an easy parallel for how I felt about my dad, and how I felt in that old summer relationship, but I didn’t realize how much hearing another woman vocalize these feelings would help me define mine.

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