A Journey to Self-Actualization: One Year of SZA’s ‘CTRL’

Via RCA Records/Top Dawg Entertainment

In the year since the release of SZA’s full-length debut, CTRL, the Top Dawg Entertainment first lady has become somewhat of a household name. Between festival placements, endorsements, and award nominations, SZA has seemingly been everywhere this past year.

CTRL was placed on several year-end album lists in December 2017 and was even named Album of the Year by TIME Magazine. The journey to CTRL’s release, however, was not as smooth as SZA’s vocals on each of the album’s 14 tracks.

The album, originally titled A, as a follow-up to her EPs, S and Z, was originally planned for release in 2015. In the year prior, SZA had come to large recognition after multiple music outlets praised her Chance the Rapper-collaboration “Child’s Play” from her EP, Z. She also penned portions of Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé’s “Feeling Myself,” and received much press coverage in anticipation for her major-label full-length debut.

In 2015, SZA’s TDE Labelmates Kendrick Lamar and Jay Rock both released albums, however, the year passed by with little to no hint of SZA’s highly anticipated debut record; no singles, no videos, however, she did perform previously unreleased material during festival appearances.

In 2016, SZA contributed guest vocals to Rihanna’s “Consideration,” which was originally written by SZA for her debut album. She also made appearances on projects from her Top Dawg labelmates, including Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, and Ab-Soul. In October of that year, when asked by a fan on Twitter for an update on her debut album, SZA replied “I actually quit,” adding that Top Dawg Entertainment Co-President Terrence “Punch” Henderson “can release [her] album if he ever feels like it.”

The aforementioned tweet was later deleted, and not much else was heard about the album until three months later, when the album’s lead single “Drew Barrymore” was released in January of 2017.

“Drew Barrymore” is an emotionally evocative song about watching someone she loves pine over someone else. On the lead single, SZA questions her worth, asking if she’s “warm enough” for the person of she so longs for. On the bridge, she apologizes for being codependent and reiterates that she doesn’t mean to be overwhelming.

Later that month, SZA performed “Drew Barrymore” on Jimmy Kimmel Live, where the titular host announced that the album would be called CTRL.

It wasn’t until SZA’s record label stole a hard drive containing over 200 songs that an official release date was decided. SZA’s anxiety was holding her back from releasing a long-awaited full-length body of work, but labelmates Kendrick Lamar and Punch narrowed the tracks down to the final 14 we know and love today.

After many a delay, CTRL was finally released on June 9 of last year. Upon its release, CTRL was an instant hit, debuting at number three on the Billboard 200. Many critics praised the album’s rawness and relatability, comparing her to the likes of Amy Winehouse and Billie Holliday.

The album opens with the Pharrell-backed “Supermodel;” a track that almost closed the record, until SZA ultimately went against the advice of labelmate Kendrick Lamar and ended it placing it at the top of the album’s tracklisting.

After “Supermodel” comes the playful “Love Galore,” on which SZA finds joy in distancing herself from emotionally abusive men. On the jocularly misandrist track’s chorus, she shouts “Why you bother me when you know you don’t want me? Why you bother me when you know you got a woman?” Despite Travis Scott shouting “Let me come inside, let me plant that seed inside,” the album’s second track is probably the most mainstream-friendly of the 14.

CTRL as a whole can be described as a journey to self-actualization. In the middle of her journey, she shamelessly timeshares the boyfriend of another woman. SZA’s proposal to allocate the other woman’s partner comes in the form of “The Weekend,” which is one of the album’s most positively received tracks. While some didn’t like the glorification of the “side chick” lifestyle, many praised the track’s introspection into a peculiar yet common scenario.

Rather than following the traditional route of ending the album on a happy, cheerful note, SZA closes CTRL with the melancholy, yet hopeful “20 Something.” While the album’s themes of self-doubt and uncertainty ring throughout “20 Something,” SZA is still somewhat optimistic in terms of the future, specifically when she says that she’s “hoping the 20-somethings don’t end” and that she hopes to “keep the rest of her friends” as her career progresses.

While the album may not be the most cheery or lighthearted of records, it is perhaps one of the most personal and relatable of the past year. The interludes, which consist of soundbites from SZA’s mother and grandmother, add to the familial motifs throughout the record. Her mother actually appears in the video for “Garden (Say it Like Dat),” which is the single ostensibly chosen to close the CTRL era.

After CTRL’s release, the album received much praise and attention from various music outlets and even other well-known entertainers. “Love Galore” and “Supermodel” were featured in HBO’s hit series “Insecure.” Beyoncé posted an Instagram video clip consisting of multiple still images, with the background music set to “Love Galore.”

Although SZA received five nominations at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist and Best Urban Contemporary Album, she didn’t end up winning any of the awards on the night of the ceremony. She did, however, kick off the year with endorsements from MasterCard, GAP, and Jordan.

She also confirmed that she had begun to record collaborations with Tame Impala and Mark Ronson. Whether these collaborations are for the rumored deluxe version of CTRL thought to be released this year or for a new project is yet to be confirmed, however, SZA is not showing any signs of slowing down.

In terms of new music, she kicked off the year with the release of “All The Stars,” a Kendrick Lamar collaboration featured as the lead single from the “Black Panther” soundtrack. She is also featured on rapper Cardi B’s “I Do,” which serves as the closing track of her debut album, Invasion of Privacy.

SZA was announced to be joining her Top Dawg labelmates on a nationwide tour this summer, until last month, when she tweeted that she had permanently damaged her vocal cords. Said tweet was later deleted.

She took a brief hiatus from the tour, while labelmate Schoolboy Q has assured fans that he would find “the best doctors” for her.

Amid her hiatus, she has seemingly made a strong recovery. She recently performed for her old high school and being inducted into her alma mater’s hall of fame.

SZA has since returned to Top Dawg’s The Championship Tour, which will continue until June 16, ending in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania.

A year after CTRL’s release, the album has gone on to receive a platinum certification from the RIAA.

Given SZA’s vocal injury, it may be years until we receive a follow-up to CTRL, but luckily, the album has aged like fine wine and has the makings of a timeless classic.

UNT Alumnus | 26 | Lover of music, food, baseball, dogs and world cultures | Curator of incredibly dope playlists

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