Looking back at SZA’s seminal album ‘Ctrl’ five years on

WORDS By August Billy


“It’s an album steeped in curiosity, self-questioning, and in demands for people to be better.”

SZA’s landmark debut album, Ctrl, didn’t come from nowhere. The artist born Solána Rowe became one to watch as soon as she signed with Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) in 2013. The signing meant SZA became label mates with Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q, and the influential LA label’s first-ever female artist. 

At the time of her signing, however, SZA’s stylistic orientation was still a work in progress. Her first official TDE release was 2014’s Z, a ten-song EP that included guest vocals from Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper and another recent Top Dawg recruit, Isaiah Rashad, as well as production from Mac Miller, Toro Y Moi, and Emile Haynie.

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Z was a mixed bag of hip-hop-influenced alt-R&B, and the feedback from fans and critics was somewhat ambivalent. SZA later credited the muted response to Z as a catalyst for the artistic progression she realised on Ctrl. “When people trash you, you’re forced to look at yourself and be like, ‘OK, you have to get better’,” she said to Pitchfork in 2017.

She added, “You have to learn if you want to do better, and some of that shit might be ass, but you have to just do it, and I just did that”. The first substantive signal of SZA’s growing artistic confidence arrived more than 12 months prior to Ctrl’s release, when SZA featured on Rihanna’s song, ‘Consideration’.

‘Consideration’ is the opening track on Rihanna’s tour de force, Anti, and SZA both co-wrote and performed co-lead vocals on the track. ‘Consideration’ moves like it has nothing to prove, but broils with conviction. It’s pop music, influenced by R&B and neo-soul, but not preoccupied with chart ascension.

In retrospect, SZA’s primary lyric in ‘Consideration’ reads like a statement of intent: “I got to do things my own way darling / You should just let me”. With the release of Ctrl in June 2017, SZA showcased what she could do when given the freedom to do things her way. 

Pop music for the nerds

Ctrl has always been a difficult record to classify. By now, SZA’s one of the biggest names in pop music. Her graduation to pop A-lister was helped by the Kendrick Lamar collaboration, ‘All the Stars’, from the Black Panther soundtrack, and last year’s ubiquitous Doja Cat collaboration, ‘Kiss Me More’, from the latter’s globe-conquering Planet Her LP.

To say that Ctrl merely laid the groundwork for SZA’s royal ascent is to woefully undersell the album’s merit. However, it’s not accurate to describe Ctrl as a representative of the pop zeitgeist. It’s a bit too weird for that. 

Ctrl was several years in the making. SZA worked closely with a team of producers, including ThankGod4Cody, Carter Lang, and Tyron ‘Scum’ Donaldson, and her preferred composition method was to intuitively respond, or freestyle, to beats and sample edits sent in by the producers. 

The eventual 14-track album was whittled down from more than 150 song ideas. At one point, TDE had to confiscate SZA’s hard drive because she was reluctant to finalise the track listing. SZA’s desire to learn from criticism and get better may have given rise to a perfectionist streak, but when Ctrl finally arrived on shelves, the album bore no traces of pop-as-mathematics. 

It’s an album steeped in curiosity, self-questioning, and in demands for people to be better. Musically, it’s a collection of elegant yet untamed downtempo R&B and indie-pop. SZA’s voice – which she once regarded as too nasal and thought should be drenched in reverb – owns the spotlight all the way through. 

There are a few guest vocalists, including Kendrick Lamar (on the pussy anthem ‘Doves in the Wind’), Travis Scott (on the Billboard quintuple-platinum ‘Love Galore’) and Rashad (on the penultimate ‘Pretty Little Birds’), all of whom do a commendable job.

But Ctrl is a magnification of SZA’s singular artistry. It’s akin to Solange’s A Seat At the Table, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and FKA Twigs’ LP1 in that it has the commercial credentials to qualify as mainstream pop music, but the listening experience feels intimate and exclusive; almost cult-like. 

Ctrl recently celebrated its fifth anniversary. A deluxe edition featuring seven extra tracks from the Ctrl era was released to mark the anniversary. But five years after its release, the original remains one of the more moving bodies of work in the contemporary pop canon.

Head here to listen to Ctrl.

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