On SZA’s ‘CTRL,’ And Learning To Find Power Through Insecurities

“The only thing you can control is the need to feel control.”

I saw that sentence graffitied onto a brick wall in Brooklyn last summer while I was wandering aimlessly, in search of myself, meandering from block to block under the unforgiving sun. It was like a punch in the chest. I was trying to chase my dreams and stay afloat simultaneously, and failing miserably. My distraction from the mess I had made of my life was a daily walk whilst listening to music that inspired me to grow up and glo up. My self-prescription was helpful to an extent, but I still found myself overcome with anxiety attacks and overwhelming self-doubt. “What am I doing? How did I end up here? Where did I f*ck up?”

I’ll be the first to admit I have no idea who I am. And I don’t know how life is supposed to work. Those two uncertainties are my constant, and they make for an interesting trajectory. It becomes even more interesting when I cross paths with woman after woman, girl after girl, who doesn’t know the answer to those queries, either.

Control is something that women constantly struggle to obtain, whether that’s professionally, socially, or interpersonally. Our planet that rotates on the energy of masculinity, so it’s easy for women to slip through the cracks of docility; we’re encouraged to relinquish power and seek it in the form of acceptance and approval, rather than direct possession.

New Jersey singer-songwriter SZA’s proper mainstream debut Ctrl challenges that norm by deconstructing the different ways power and control can be gained. Throughout the album, she explores and exposes control in the form of relationships with men, with time and with the self.

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But the opening track “Supermodel” shows SZA handing that control over to someone else. The song overflows with a longing to understand and accept herself through the perspective of another — even if that someone is flawed:

“I could be your supermodel if you believe
If you see it in me, see it in me, see it in me
I don’t see myself
Why I can’t stay alone just by myself?
Wish I was comfortable just with myself
But I need you, but I need you, but I need you.”

Women are expected to be resilient. Black women, in particular, are often painted as figures of strength. “Supermodel” shows the reality, that we’re vulnerable, too, that we need validation, too. One of the first and most important parts of gaining control is about admitting the areas where you need to relinquish it and rely on someone else.

There’s an urgency on Ctrl that wasn’t present on SZA’s last effort, 2014’s Z. Three years have gone by, a couple of false starts in the form of one-off singles, on top of pump fakes disguised as early retirement plans. Through it all, SZA — born Solána Rowe — has grown into a more confident artist. Her songwriting is more direct, yet slippery and expansive like oil, spilling over into previously restricted territories.

Her vocal approach is intentionally unsettled, bouncing back and forth between elongated enunciations and clipped phrases. She straddles the stylistic line, recognizing herself as an other that doesn’t fit squarely into one box, genre or identity. She flits effortlessly from the dream pop of “Prom” to the slinky R&B of “The Weekend,” showcasing her ability to morph according to her mood.

The features on the album are exclusively male — Pharrell, Travis Scott, Kendrick Lamar, James Fauntleroy, and Isaiah Rashad. SZA maneuvers them as illustrative figures, using them as stand-ins to show how men operate, think and influence women. But she receives spoken maternal guidance throughout, from both her mother and grandmother; they lead her through the crisscrossing paths of friendships and relationships, the soured and the blossoming. The women before her, like women everywhere, have been through this before. They’ve loved and been hated, had control, lost it, and found it again.

Love is the crux of this album — sought, acquired, and neglected. On “Garden (Say It Like Dat),” SZA perfectly translates a moment of feeling unlovable, even when your potential is being reflected back at you:

“Open your heart up
Hoping I’ll never find out that you’re anyone else
‘Cause I love you just how you are
Hope you never find out who I really am
‘Cause you’ll never love me, you’ll never love me, you’ll never love me
But I believe you when you say it like dat”

“Normal Girl” addresses what so many of us have been confronted with and struggled through, how do we fit in? On the track, SZA is confessing that she’s an oddball, but also not attempting to be anybody but herself. It’s the final song on Ctrl — “20 Something” — that brings her full circle, it exists in the same space as the opening track, “Supermodel.” Each is serene, largely acoustic, and deeply revelatory:

“How could it be?
20 something, all alone still
Not a phone in my name
Ain’t got nothin’, runnin’ from love
Only know fear
That’s me, Ms. 20 Something
Ain’t got nothin’, runnin’ from love
Wish you were here”

She speaks clearly here on the very real fear of getting away from yourself. But she acknowledges that fear — of love, of not being enough — can also get in the way of growth and self-discovery — or even acceptance. In 49 minutes and 14 songs, SZA masters a universe of insecurities, femininity and imperfections. She uses this album to bring girls worldwide to her side. She’s saying, “I’m here and I hear you. I am you.”

Ctrl is an introverted girl’s Lisa Frank notebook filled with scribbles and doodles about the life she’s lived and the life she wants to live. She details the confusing twists and turns that have thrown her off track, but ultimately made her who she is. It’s simultaneously a warning of her f*ck-ups, and an encouragement to us imperfect women to run forward and make our own mistakes, to find our own versions of power and control and never let them go.

Kiana Fitzgerald is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter here.