Listening to Ctrl, SZA’s debut album and coming of age tale, I’m reminded of the emotional power of Frank Ocean’s Blonde and the ways in which it tapped into the nuanced mindfuck of growing up with sonic elegance and fierce sensitivity.
Early on, SZA confronts her developing identity as a woman, assessing expectations versus reality, apologizing for being clingy and not being ladylike. And yet, there’s confidence in her ownership of these qualities, which sets the tone for the album’s ongoing fluctuation between appearingly contradictory viewpoints.
As SZA wavers between confidence and self-deprecation, neediness and independence, much of this exploration takes place in the framework of romantic and sexual relationships. These encounters serve as a means for her to learn about and understand herself, such as “The Weekend,” in which she pretends to be okay with sharing a guy with another woman before recognizing it’s not enough. As she navigates flings, hookups, and past relationships, she analyzes her motivations and ability (or lack thereof) to connect in an authentic and stable manner.
SZA’s self-awareness permeates the album as she acknowledges the ways in which her actions are often desperate, selfish, and stemming from loneliness, such as when she muses, “Why I can’t stay alone just by myself?” In doing so, she provides the listener with a safe space for rumination that’s based in realness over judgment.
Her juggling of cognitive dissonance gets at an experience that’s quintessentially human, such as when SZA declares, “I belong to nobody” at the outro of one song before immediately opening the next with the plea, “Need you for the old me / Need you for my sanity.”
SZA, through a poignant simplicity, captures the struggle of growing from youth into adulthood, which is often wrought with fear and uncertainty: “Fearin’ not growing up… Am I doin’ enough? Feel like I’m wastin’ time.” Her account of this journey leans into the uncomfortable, embarrassing, and unsightly mistakes and misunderstandings inevitable along the way, offering solidarity in her imperfections.
She includes the voices of her mom and grandmother who provide guidance and wisdom, reminding us young folks of the relief and clarity to be gained from those who have being doing this whole life thing longer than us.
“Honesty hurts when you’re getting older,” she explains on the last track of the album, appropriately titled “20-Something.” Despite this reality, that’s exactly what Ctrl is: an honest account of growing up that’s raw, exposed, and unromanticized.
SZA concludes the album not with her perspective but with that of her mother, who declares the need to commit to whatever feels true because otherwise, life is an abyss.
SZA, 26, gives a voice to young women growing older and hopefully wiser along the way, presenting a self-examination that encourages honesty, reflection, and the hope of getting “better as I get older.”