SZA’s CTRL Is Still The Soundtrack Of Young Black Womanhood

Photo: courtesy of Top Dawg Entertainment.
Everyone has a summer that they return to in their minds as they get older. You know, the one filled with nostalgia, complete with hotter, longer days, a revolving chorus of friends, and more afternoons spent by bodies of water merged into restless midnights than you can count. For a lot of the Black femmes I was in community with at the time, the summer of 2017 was that summer.  And the defining soundtrack of those sensual, soul-filling, sun-soaked days was SZA’s debut album, CTRL.
A lot of us were still in university. Or juggling a balance of roommates, full-time course loads, internships and intimacy. We were a liberated group of womanists living in the city who twerked in campus courtyards and corner stores. We hosted talks about love and liberation — some as college campus events, others as intimate sleepovers — or we’d spend  a stolen midday lunch in rapt discussion. And we would do it all to the subtly sweet and empowering sounds of SZA’s CTRL
It’s been five years since the album's release on June 9, 2017 and CTRL still holds a pleasurable, sentimental space in the lives of Black women that created their own versions of womanhood while listening to the album and still holding tight to the experimental freedom of early young adulthood. The album embraced messiness and sexual liberation — two things Black women rarely get to be out loud. Not only was it a lyrical sensation that ushered in a new era of R&B, it was a massive success. The album garnered five Grammy noms (though she deserved to win!), debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, and was certified 2x platinum. It was such a hit, SZA has released a deluxe edition to mark its 5-year milestone. In honour of its anniversary, I decided to look back on the original album and its impact with other Black femmes who were touched by SZA’s seminal work. 

CTRL still holds a sentimental space in the lives of Black women who created their own versions of womanhood while listening to the album.

“The album itself felt like [who you are in] college. You do your best to be a good person, but you’re still going to piss someone off,” says Lola, a friend of mine from college who is now 25. “Summer 2017…that was quite a messy summer for me,” says Lola. “I went on a lot of random Tinder dates…I was just saying ‘yes’ to everything… I remember there was this one couple whose house I went to, and they randomly baked me a whole cake and taught me how to knit. There was another guy [I met on Tinder] that taught me how to bake edibles and just let me have all of them afterwards.”
The feeling of being young, carefree, meeting strangers, and being a bit irresponsible is probably summed up best by CTRL’s seventh track “Go Gina.” In it, SZA urges all the “uptight mamas” (over a dreamy and playful beat) to let go of their worries and have some senseless fun for a while. 
“[When SZA sings] ‘I’ve been hanging out with my high friends’ it’s so relatable… I always find myself returning to the album when I’m high and it’s really sunny out,” says Maryam, another friend from college. 
SZA cements this “fun girl'' (she was living the “soft life” before it became a TikTok trend) aesthetic on songs like “Anything” where she sings about being “down for the ride.” She wants to go any place and to do anything that her lover might be interested in because that’s just how much she is captivated by them. A popular troupe of Black women being “down” goes as far back as the ‘90s (see Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down”), but SZA sings positively and convincingly that she enjoys being the object of her loved one’s desire and thus, is willing to go anywhere with them accordingly. 
Still, we get hints on the track that SZA might be contemplating moving into a new, more independent, way of being. The repetitious outro in “Anything” in which she asks “Do you even know I’m alive?” points to a deep dissatisfaction with her relationship that's bubbling to the surface — a realisation that SZA might not be as “down” as she tries to seem.

In CTRL, SZA never appears to have it all together and her indecisive emotions reflect the intensity of being in your twenties.

“That summer felt like a lot of excitement and disappointments. It was my first time feeling like I had agency as a young adult, but there were all these big feelings I couldn’t deal with,” says Maryam.
During the summer of CTRL, my day job was working at a coffee shop. My day to day often looked like long shifts that were made more difficult by lackluster management and not enough pay. All throughout the week, my “dirty shoes,” stayed peppered with coffee grinds and the remnants of sticky espresso. Like SZA in “Broken Clocks,” I dated a guy who often made me late to work. The distractions of our recent drama stayed fresh on my mind in a way that frequently left me feeling down for hours. As an older young-adult, I learned ways to manage tough emotions so that I’m still able to show up for what’s important to me in my life even when I might be having difficulties in my platonic and romantic relationships. I see similar themes among my friends who are working towards finding their happiness in life and no longer just taking it “day by day.”
Growing through mistakes made in love and relationships is a resounding theme in CTRL, and SZA vulnerably and unapologetically shares intimate encounters that mirror experiences her femme Gen Z and Millennial fanbase are having, even when those experiences are contradictory and uncomfortable. 
In one of the albums most popular singles “The Weekend,” SZA sings over a melodic trap beat about being one of three women sharing a man’s sexual attention. In this song, and in much of the album, SZA is the anti-heroine. She’s the woman on the outskirts of monogamous love peeking in on the ever-elusive idea of a committed relationship through the blinds of her longing and plotting a space where she can fit in. 
“SZA was just someone who was like ‘Okay, I’m messy. I want things I can’t have. I wish I wasn’t this way, but I am…and I’m very much feeling lost.’ But [the album is] a kind of celebration of that,” Lola says. In CTRL, SZA never appears to have it all together and her indecisive emotions reflect the intensity of being in your twenties (SZA was 27 when the album came out).
“That summer when CTRL came out ended badly for me. I didn’t end up in a relationship with the person I wanted to be with, but ended up with the person that really cared for and loved me the most,” Maryam shares. 
Perhaps this wisdom and agency of choice is one all Black women hope they can reach in regards to their romantic and sexual lives, and one SZA touches on boldly on “Doves In The Wind.” When she sings, “Real niggas do not deserve pussy,” it’s an affirmative statement of the necessity for Black women to set boundaries and standards with their male counterparts, not only around sex, but in everyday interactions. SZA gave us our marching orders: make sure these men treat us as we’re worth — no settling for anything less. 
This Bad Bitch behaviour was the word of the day in my early 20s during the dawn of CTRL. In hindsight, it’s clear that SZA’s debut album pointed me towards a shift from my late-teen cynical feminism to the Bad Bitch “dump him, sis” era that defined my college experience.

CTRL expanded my identity in so many ways... Unlike with Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, I didn’t have to be a 'long skirt girlie' to be a fan of SZA’s music —but then again, I could be. Because the album was for everyone.

“The vibe back then was very much like ‘take no shit’,” says Lola. In other words, if niggas would “wine, dine” and “spend time” for the pussy, like Kendrick attests to in his verse on “Doves In The Wind,” then why should Black women ever settle for less than what we absolutely desire? This idea of not settling and confidently stating your needs in romantic and sexual relationships is basically the thesis of CTRL, and for a lot Black femmes, the album helped find themselves discover newfound aspects of our womahood. “CTRL kind of introduced me to sexual liberation,” says Maryam. “Women can want sex without commitment or they can want commitment. But understanding that it’s your body, and you can do whatever you want with it. It was very empowering.”
In “Love Galore,” SZA sings first about being done with dating  then later expresses her desire to form relationships that are built off of the foundation of a love practice, “Long as we got, love, love, love,” she sings. There’s something about these lyrics that expand beyond the experiences of hetero-normative, sexual relationships. “All the queer spaces I was around at that time were bumping the album hard,” says Maryam.
So many of the themes in CTRL are universally relatable. In “Drew Barrymore,” SZA sings softly with longing and vulnerability about comparing herself to the girl who her crush brings to a party with mutual friends. “She’s perfect and I hate it,” SZA admits to herself and to us.
Later in the song, she poses a question to her crush asking if she’s “warm enough,” for them — a painfully honest innuendo that has duelling connotations: she’s asking if she’s soft and feminine enough (descriptors Black women are often never given), as well as when she’s sexually satisfying enough for her crush. “Is it warm enough inside me?” SZA sings. Songs like “Supermodel” contain a similar, heartbreaking honesty that touch on the high standards Black women are expected to reach and the pressure that those expectations bring.
The way SZA meshes different aspects of her personality creates a version of Black womanhood that’s not limited to being just one thing. Her lyrics contain an intersectional portrait of Blackness that’s often missing in pop culture — from music, to movies, and beyond.
CTRL as an album expanded my identity in so many ways,” says Maryam. “Listening to CTRL was very much like, ‘[SZA] gets it,’” Lola adds. “Unlike with Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, I didn’t have to be a “long skirt girlie” to be a fan of and to enjoy SZA’s music —but then again, I could be. Because the album itself was for everyone. Anyone could be the ‘Normal Girl.’” 
Having grown into my Black womanhood alongside the album, I often joke with a friend that the most enjoyable times to listen to SZA’s CTRL are when you can no longer relate to the often self-loathing, messy, and unsatisfied main character in a lot of the album’s songs, but instead can look back on a past version of yourself that the album helped you love unconditionally until you learned to outgrow that part of you.
Just when I think CTRL will remain a sort of time-capsule for me–a nostalgic collection of songs that continue to mimic a person I was before, I find other tracks get more relatable with each passing year. Electric guitar melodies set the tone in the song “20 Somethings” — a soft ballad that, for me, reveals new lyrics and aspects the older I become. Lines like “Honesty hurts when you’re getting older,” and concepts like growing apart from formative friendships and having difficult and necessary vulnerable conversations didn’t feel significant in my early twenties, but have now become defining truisms in my mid-twenties.
Songs like SZA’s “Prom” similarly point to how difficult imagining yourself in the future might be when you’re so wrapped up in the present. In the near-mid album track, SZA expresses fears over not maturing fast enough with opening lyrics like, “Feel like I’m not growing up.” But other songs on the album point to just how dynamic and self-knowing the Black femme main characters in CTRL already are. And maybe that’s due to SZA’s commitment to “get a little better” as she gets older. And for the five years that we’ve had CTRL, she has inspired Black women to do the same.
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