The Gentle Agony Of SZA Losing ‘CTRL’

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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.

There are so many agonizing moments on CTRL that it’s easy to see why she delayed its release for several years, refining songs and reflecting on what it would be like to put a tape like this out into the world. But even while she stalled over her own work, SZA’s songwriting contributions elsewhere made it impossible not to anticipate what she would do. She co-wrote the best songs on The Pinkprint (“Feeling Myself”) and Anti (“Consideration”), two of this album’s kindred spirits, then, either accidentally, unwittingly, or with absolute power, topped both of those albums on CTRL. Perhaps, the reason she does is because of a willingness to be even more explicit than either Nicki or Rihanna, who are much more established figures in the pop world. At least for now.

The album was an unexpected coup; even SZA’s longtime, diehard fans — of which there are many — were surprised to find their ranks suddenly growing, exponentially, over the course of the summer. Last night at the downtown LA venue, The Novo, the growth was even more apparent — Solana Rowe is simply too big for a crowd of 2,000 or so people. Future tour bookers should take note, the show sold out in mere minutes and most of my immediate circle were pining to go. And with good reason, if CTRL was a coup, SZA’s live show is an entire kingdom.

It’s hard to think of an artist more singular than SZA, who was pirouetting around the stage in combat boots, black hot topic era work overalls and a sequin and lace bra, topped off by a slash of wide fishnets hiked up past her bellybutton, adding an unexpected aura of sexiness underneath it all. She occupied the stage last night with the kind of freedom it’s rare to see from an artist of any level, whether they’re well-established and in the cushy business of selling out arenas, or brand new, playing baby stages. Even in the unfortunate throes of technical difficulties, Solana was undaunted, simply using the opportunity to belt out an old, old favorite, “Sobriety,” acapella, giving her day-one fans a well-deserved sense of superiority in a sea of newcomers.

SZA may never be in this space again, but for now, she’s still technically an indie artist, the rarefied space that gives her the freedom to air her dirty laundry, bloody panties, sweaty thongs, bras you can’t really wash because they’re half-lace, half-wire and half sex smell — and if you’re uncomfortable reading about the realities of a woman’s underwear, that’s nothing compared to CTRL itself. She admits to cheating on an ex with one of his friends within minutes (“Supermodel”), and sang that line last night with the kind of gleefully bitterness that only a broken heart can breed, she longs for a lover worthy of ripping her bed apart (“Doves In The Wind”), she demands one more hour from a man who won’t willingly give it (“Love Galore”), and lays out her unhappiness with a timeshared boyfriend (“The Weekend”).

For too long, the myth has persisted that a woman who struggled to be in a romantic relationship was inherently flawed, the onus was on women to flatten and conform themselves to male expectations until one stuck around — only then would a woman be deemed acceptably desirable or in proper control of her life. On CTRL SZA flips the script, fearlessly eviscerating the men who failed her instead of steeping in self-blame. She is unapologetically herself, using the wisdom of her mother and grandmother to redefine her values, relinquishing control over the past that she can’t change, while steeling herself to continue to be her own advocate in the future.

In the process, this album has arguably given voice to the anger and disappointment that a generation of women face when they attempt to construct loving and healthy relationships in a sea of men (and women) (I’ve dated a few) who are ill-equipped to reciprocate or are uninterested in providing the interpersonal infrastructure that elevates sex, or a hookup, to a relationship, and to love. Who does that leave a twenty-something woman with?

Last night, just before starting one of her final songs, “(Garden) Say It Like Dat,” SZA explained who the song was written for: “I wrote this is for one of the old me’s,” she said huskily. Revealing, in those last moments, that the work of loving yourself doesn’t have to be done alone.

CTRL is out now via Top Dawg Entertainment/RCA. Get it here.