Ctrl presents us with one of the most multifaceted female perspectives in Pop and RnB since Solange’s 2016 album: A Seat at the Table. Contrasting themes of what feels good in your twenties with what will be better for you in the future.
Domesticity and the ‘American dream’ are passed on through our parents, while our own generation recycles these unattainable ideals into Instagram hashtags and ‘life goals’. If a lifetime’s dating pool can fit in our pocket, then love should be easy – but it’s not. It might come easy, but keeping it is a different story. SZA explains the current dating landscape: ‘We get so lonely, we pretend that this works’ (‘Drew Barrymore’).
Puncture the sonic warmth and sensuality of Ctrl, and you’ll find emptiness and disillusionment with modern love. Discussed by Drake countless times, SZA addresses this topic with the nuance of Solange, Blood Orange and Frank Ocean. Women are told we don’t need someone to complete us. But SZA struggles with independence and self-fulfilment. Sexual empowerment is mixed with vulnerability and insecurity: ‘Wish I was comfortable just with myself’ (‘Supermodel’). Similar themes unravel in ‘Drew Barrymore’ when she admits: ‘I get so lonely, I forget what I’m worth’. She discusses regrets, fears and desires with a complexity women are seldom allowed in Pop, RnB and Hip hop—all these genres SZA crosses into effortlessly.
One-dimensional women in music are frequently attributed to The Weeknd. Female fantasies in his lyrics range from coke-frenzied nympho to intoxicated party girl. SZA reverts this repressive wet dream by asking questions: ‘Why is it so hard to accept the party is over?’ (‘Supermodel’).
The female perspective shifts from object to subject as she draws on Drake themes: ‘Heard you got some new homies. Got some new hobbies’. These lyrics mirror his insecurity in ‘Hotline Bling’ that results from his ex-girl culminating new experiences. The lines from ‘Supermodel’: ‘Why you in Vegas all up on Valentine’s day’ echo Drake’s bitter line of questioning on the Views hit.
She fails to uphold this contrived image of femininity. But in expressing that she’s not perfect, she’s not necessarily owning this counter-trope of the badass, untouchable woman either. She forgets her self-worth.
SZA’s self-consciousness and imperfection manifests in streams of heart-breaking apologies. ‘I’m sorry I’m so clingy’, ‘sorry I’m not more attractive’, ‘sorry I’m not more ladylike’, ‘sorry I don’t shave my legs at night’ (‘Drew Barrymore’). She apologises for the space she takes up but continues to project these often-dismissed thoughts and feelings. SZA isn’t the indestructible heroine trope expected to counter oppressive stereotypes of female fragility. ‘Why am I so easy to forget like that?’ she asks in ‘Supermodel’.
She crumbles. She gets lonely. She makes mistakes. She’s learning.
Fear of ‘not growing up’, and anxiety surrounding ‘wasting time’ keeps her up at night (‘Prom’).
SZA doesn’t always know where she stands with men, but she’s not afraid to assert: ‘I know what you want’. She boasts of keeping a man satisfied while referencing the other women he’s accumulated: ‘I’ll be at your door. Ready to take her place’ (‘The Weekend’). ‘My man is my man is your man’, she confesses. She tells one of his ostensible side-chicks to care for him on Wednesday and Thursday so that she can be with him on weekends. It’s clear she’s a placeholder; there’s sadness behind these boastful lyrics. But she’s not intrinsically bitter or miserable.
Ctrl is about trying and trying and trying again. Wanting to let go but not always being able to. Demanding respect but hypocritically disrespecting others in the process. The most depressing part is she’s happy being a placeholder—temporarily at least. Content as she watches the person she loves be with someone else if it means being in their life in some minuscule way. Just like Frank Ocean in ‘Self Control’ and Prince in ‘When You Were Mine’, she compromises; finding a place in the untenable relationship.
SZA is not the same as her contemporaries. She’s not Rihanna when she declares: ‘I been secretly banging your homeboy’ (‘Supermodel’) There are doubts and insecurities in these braggadocios lyrics. She seeks validation: ‘say my booty getting’ bigger even if it ain’t.’ She knows she’ll never receive the kind of attention she desires; that she’ll only ever be a placeholder for a future woman. Sexual lines are framed with questions and doubts. She could be a supermodel ‘if you believe’... If you see it in her. SZA is still deeply insecure and envious of other women. But she doesn’t blame them, even allocating times to share her man.
‘If you don’t say something, speak up for yourself. They think you stupid’ (‘Love Galore’). SZA follows in the tradition of sprinkling motherly advice in albums about personal development and self-discovery, popularised by Solange, Frank Ocean and Drake. She remains relatively quiet on ‘Doves in the wind’, her vocals swaying and melting behind spacey synths, smooth drums and a jarring Kendrick verse about ‘facetious’ pussy. In an album of all male features, power is not needing to raise her voice to be heard. Bookending the album are the guiding motherly words reminding her where she came from amid deciding where to go. The maternal voice reappears with more wisdom in the ‘Garden (say it like dat)’ interlude: ‘You stand your ground… If you don’t like me you don’t have to fool with me’.
SZA is nuanced; unapologetic in expressing her feelings but apologetic for all her imperfections at the same time. The Valentine’s day escapade was revenge, but her voice lacks bitterness, cold-heartedness. Vengeance should be sexy and vindictive; even femme-fatalistic, but sadness and hesitance pervade the lyrics: ‘Leave me lonely for prettier women’, ‘I need too much attention’ (‘Supermodel’).
She’s discovering that she’s had enough of the ‘petty dudes’; realisation that she’s worth more than games—even if she’s ‘too much’, even if she’s sometimes the perpetrator. ‘Brocken Clocks’ shows resilience: ‘Better day than yesterday… I just take it day by day’. She’s not broken. ‘Pretty Little Birds’ is about someone who’s ‘hit the wind’ a few times. Strength can spur as a result of fucking up.
Ctrl is an ode to the twentysomethings and finding a place where you can look to the future despite uncertainty. Hopelessness is never at the expense of silver linings. ‘I wanna shave my legs for you’ she proclaims in ‘Pretty Little Birds’, contradicting the line in ‘Drew Barrymore’ in which she apologises for not being the girl who shaves her legs at night.
SZA compromises and folds. She’s defiant but eager to please. She’s so full of love, so full of hope, so hopelessly twentysomething. The album is a series of contradictions, but that’s what makes the lyrics compelling. ‘If it’s an illusion, I don’t want to wake up. I’m gonna hang on to it. Because the alternative is an abyss’. Cycles of destruction, bad habits, mistakes, and lies contradict the illusion that we have control over how our life turns out. But what else is there to hold on to? People say it gets easier as you age, but SZA isn’t so sure: ‘Honestly hurts when you’re getting’ older’.
SZA wants to grow up, to gain ‘control’ and move forward from this period of her life. But she’s also hoping her ‘20 somethings won’t end’. The paradox is that she’s better as she gets older, but she’s still scared of growing up.