Annie Lennox, the pop/rock singer, once described songwriting as the “expression of the heart, the intellect, and the soul.” SZA, the 26-year-old singer signed to Top Dawg Entertainment, is a great songwriter. In fact, Rihanna and Beyonce enlisted her to co-write “Consideration” and “Feelin’ Myself,” respectively. “I love to write… I could only write from my most honest point of view and see if you connect to it,” she said about writing songs for other artists on a recent episode of Complex’s Everyday Struggle. But SZA has shared very little about herself.
On previous mixtapes, See.SZA.Run and S, and her EP, Z, she writes in abstract metaphors; her language is rarely direct. “I used to be very figurative and also just kind of scared to talk about the way I felt in a literal way,” she said on The Breakfast Club last week. Even when exploring the complexity of personal relationships, abandonment, and nostalgia—as she does on Z—it’s difficult to get a sense of who she is behind the words. On “Green Mile,” a song about a dysfunctional relationship, she sings, “Heading to the massacre, bodies arriving every day/What were those shells you heard, picking the bones up along the way.” Whatever lived experience led SZA to feel that way, she cuts the listener off from.
Ctrl, her major label debut album released this past Friday, is the opposite. She’s the most visible, vulnerable, and in control we’ve seen her.
When I first met SZA last October to interview her for Complex, she wouldn’t reveal much about the album. “I want it to be listened to,” she said. But she noted that Ctrl, which was untitled at the time, would be a personal record examining the notion of control—something she said she’s struggled with her whole life. (The album includes spoken-word interludes on the subject from her mother and grandmother.) “It’s about peeling back layers and honesty even when it’s ugly, when it hurts,” she told me. “Just kind of cleansing…. Just being more free.”
The album title recalls Janet Jackson’s Control, which was a crucial project for the legendary singer. Jackson expressed her personality far more forcefully than she had before on Control—much like SZA aims to do here. SZA has explained that her newfound candor was a result of the personal hardships from the last few years. “My life has just been falling the fuck apart,” she said. “I buried, like, three ex-boyfriends, my granny died, I buried someone two days ago… I’m devastated by the state of the world and the hatred.” She’s toyed with the idea of retiring after this album, explaining that she’s “really frustrated” and “kind of over it.” But, she said, “I feel alive and clear on what I want. I don’t have the energy to create a filter anymore.”
SHE’S THE MOST VISIBLE, VULNERABLE, AND IN CONTROL WE’VE SEEN HER.
On the album’s opener “Supermodel,” which begin with a simple guitar riff and is later joined by Pharrell’s crisp Despicable Me-like drums, SZA is blunt about both an ex-boyfriend who did her wrong on Valentine’s Day and her own insecurities. “Let me tell you a secret: I been secretly banging your homeboy,” she sings. She asks, “Why I can’t stay alone just by myself? Wish I was comfortable with just myself/But I need you.” On “Normal Girl,” she turns the line of questioning on herself: “How do I be? How do I be a lady?” Later, she sings, “Wish I was the type of girl you take over to mama/The type of girl, I know my daddy, he’d be proud of.”
There’s power in her vulnerability. Much of Ctrl is SZA talking to herself. By singing honestly and openly about her fears, self-doubt, pain from past relationships, she doesn’t play the victim. Instead, she’s self-possessed. “The Weekend,” a Justin Timberlake-sampling R&B song that sounds faintly like a classic Brandy single, is about being a side chick. “You’re like 9 to 5, I’m the weekend/Make him lose his mind every weekend,” she sings. The song isn’t about shame, it’s about power. “Women are supposed to cry and feel weird like, ‘Oh my god, I have no n***a. He’s not my man. It doesn’t matter,” she said on The Breakfast Club. “Just enjoy your life. Focus on what’s important to you. If you wanna kick it with the n***a, kick it with him. If you don’t, move on. It’s not a big deal. It doesn’t have to be a thing.”
SZA is the dominant one on this project. On the moodier, mellower Z, her sky-high falsetto and ethereal voice were often dominated by the production. Here, her raspy, raw vocal style is assertive, like on “Drew Barrymore.” Even with guest features from Kendrick Lamar (“Doves In the Wind”) and Travis Scott (“Love Galore”), who turns in a great contribution, SZA is the highlight. She’s never the side attraction. (In an interview with the Breakfast Club, she explained that she discovered the range of her voice while she was on tour because performing live, in larger venues, forced her to sing loudly.)
SZA has said that she didn’t know how to write songs. During an episode of Complex’s Everyday Struggle, she said she had to learn how to “take this feeling and magnify it using structure and to communicate this feeling more clearly.” On Ctrl she proves she’s coming into her own as a songwriter. She finally begins to answer the question she posed on “Child’s Play,” from Z: “Do you want to know me?”