Understanding the Beauty That Is SZA’s Album CTRL

CTRL album cover. SZA is pictured sitting around old computers in nature.

CTRL is SZA’s first studio album, released in 2017 — This is one of the best albums that any artist has ever released, and I will be going into every single song here and how they all tie in together. I have provided a ★ next to each of my favorite songs on this album (even though I love all of them).

SZA, also known as Solána Imani Rowe, was born on November 8, 1990. She is a neo-soul/R&B rapper. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and was raised in Maplewood, New Jersey. Her father was an executive producer at CNN, and her mother was an executive at AT&T. She was raised as an orthodox Muslim.

She self-released two EP’s in 2012 and 2013, See.SZA.Run, and S, respectively. She then released her third EP, Z, under the label Top Dawg Entertainment.

When she released CTRL, her first LP, in 2017, it had universal acclaim from music critics. Time named it Best Album of 2017, it debuted at number 3 on US Billboard 200 and was eventually certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. It is an amazing album, and was recognized for it, even being nominated for four Grammy Awards. Now, why was it so incredible for the first studio album release of a singer?

CTRL has 14 songs, runs for about 49 minutes, and has songs featuring Travis Scott and Kendrick Lamar. And the beauty of this album was that it was absolutely designed for you to listen to every single song, in order, no skips. And it absolutely grabs your attention with the first song.

“Supermodel”

“Supermodel,” the first song on the album, starts with a voice clip of the disembodied voice of her mother, saying,

“…and my greatest fear was that if I lost control, or did not have control, things would just, you know, be fatal…”

There are more clips of her speaking what she thinks about various topics around the idea of control (hence the album name), and she usually either comes in at the beginning of the end to tie the song together.

After this clip is played, it goes into a sound of crumpling paper, and then one guitar strums a few notes as SZA goes into her anger with her ex. She continues to say that she cheated on him with one of his “homeboys” while he was in Vegas, saying that she was angry that he didn't call her and seemingly just forgot about her. This really goes in well with the whole control motif that she has, saying that she took control and wanted to do whatever she wanted to do, going into a back-and-forth with herself, singing,

“Oh no, she didn't, Ooh, yes I did, Oh no, she didn't, I’ll do it again.”

Then she sings that she could be your

“Supermodel, If you believe, If you see it in me, see it in me, I don’t see myself,”

This is a recurring theme throughout the album, as she goes into her inner self-loathing to connect with the listener, as we have all struggled with body positivity and comfort with the ways that we look.

She goes into how she wishes she could stay alone, but she misses her ex and “needs him.” Again, easily relatable lyrics as many people have probably gotten back with someone that they shouldn't have just because they can’t get over them. She repeats her iconic chorus again and then repeats

“but I need you, I need you, I need you.”

Then muffled whisper-singing of a male is played while she sings above it, and the song fades away.

“Love Galore” (feat. Travis Scott) ★

“Love Galore,” the second song on the album, begins with a three-note sequence that continues throughout the entire song, and Travis Scott comes in, almost repeating her last line from the previous song

“I need, I need, I need, I need…”

and then she comes in with her beautiful singing voice, bouncing up and down on notes as she sings

“Love, long as we got, love…Done with these n*****, I don't love these n*****, I dust off these n*****, do it for fun”

This line I see as her having a dilemma again as she says she is done with men, but then she “dusts off these n*****,” meaning that she probably is doing it for a sort-of self-fulfilling prophecy, saying that she goes back to dating around for fun. She then says

“Personally I'm surprised you called me after the things I said,”

implying that she made the person she is talking to angry, but yet they still came back to her. This is where we realize that she doesn't think she is beautiful, but many men think she is, and they come back to her because they miss her. Then she says,

“Promise I won’t cry over spilled milk… gimme a paper towel, gimme another valium, gimme another hour or two, hour with you,”

implying here, that she has gotten upset in the past but wants the person back too, so she wants to try not to get upset too easily.

“Why you bother me when you know you don’t want me?”

Bringing this line in, she begins to transfer how she is talking about the person, saying that they will have fun on the weekends, even though she “know you know better,” and this is where the chorus starts to make a little more sense, as the beautifully sung lyric “Love, love, love, ‘long as we got.”

Then she goes into some self-lamenting, which the listener could relate to here as she says

“Should’ve never gave you my number… I regret it, you gots a problem, now it's a problem, oh no”

And then she goes into some playful lines about “bitches” and confesses that she has had some same-sex relations, saying

“I love on my lady, luh-love to my ladies, I dated a few.”

Then Travis Scott comes in, saying

“Why you bother me?” x3, and then, “last time I checked, you were the one that left, me in a wreck, me in a mess.”

Here he is playing the part of the ex-lover or guy that SZA keeps going back to, reiterating the problems that she just mentioned, saying that he is sad when she comes back to him because she was the one that left.

And then the song closes with a repeat of the chorus again, and then another audio clip, this time it sounds like it is her grandmother, who says

“But see Solána, if you don’t say something, speak up for yourself, they think you stupid, you know what I'm saying?”

“Doves In the Wind” (feat. Kendrick Lamar)

“Doves In the Wind” begins with a bouncing beat, and this song is where her tone switches to be, while more grotesque, more body-positive, and just breaking that barrier to talk more about women and their sexuality. All I can do is applaud SZA here for her willingness to express her inner thoughts and feelings concerning her sexuality and feminity.

She comes in after a few seconds, singing

“Real n***** do not deserve p****”

elaborating, it almost seems like she means that they deserve more, as she says, “It’s more you see right through walls… you deserve the whole box of chocolates,” as she then goes into a Forrest Gump reference saying that he was

“never without p****… never even pushed for the p****, wheres Forrest now when you need ‘em?”

Basically meaning that he never was crazy about it, but that's what allowed him to have Jenny, who was willing to do anything for him.

Then, Kendrick Lamar comes in.

“N***** that lose they mind for it, wine for it dine for it, (p****), spend time for it, see no color line for it (p****),”

He is basically saying it is dangerous because it makes men do crazy things and lose their minds for a female’s private parts. He then goes to personify p**** in multiple different ways and then says

“Solána, middle fingers up, speak your truth”

She comes in, continues to personify her private parts, and then makes the final comparison that ties the song title to the song, saying

“p**** like doves in the wind,”

and finalizes the song yet again, with an audio clip again from her mother, who says

“And you know, while as I said it can be scary, it can also be, a little bit comforting, because I've learned that when I get to that point and I can acknowledge, ‘okay, you know, Audrey, that's as much as you can do,’ I can actually let it…”

“Drew Barrymore”

“…go”

The voice clip from the last song continues into this song perfectly. This is such a masterpiece of a simple moment, but it goes unnoticed unless you listen to the album all the way through. This happens at other points too, and this is one of the little lesser-known beauties of this album.

As the “…go” is heard, the guitar for this song starts, with some slight percussion on the side. Then in an odd but pretty way, she sings

“Why is it so hard to accept the party is over? You came with your new friends and her mom jeans and her new Vans and she’s perfect and I hate it, Oh, so glad you made it. I’m so glad you could come back,”

In this back-and-forth with herself, she compliments all the things she liked about what is presumed as her ex-boyfriend's new lover, but she is lamenting her when she compliments. Then she laments her boyfriend by saying,

“Won’t you shut up, know you're my favorite”

as she goes into the chorus,

“Am I warm enough for you, outside baby, yeah, is it warm enough for you inside me?”

You can take this lyric how you'd like, but I believe she means it sexually. She then says

“I get so lonely I forget what I’m worth,”

relating to many listeners and myself, as we all are lonely and make bad decisions that degrade us. She then goes into a verse of lines where she says

“I’m sorry I'm not more attractive, I’m sorry I'm not more ladylike, I’m sorry I don't shave my legs at night.”

More self-loathing and less body positivity here, but it's all about the back-and-forth that she does with herself. Then she says one of the best thought-out lines that I feel gets overlooked too easily. She says,

“Do you really love me, or do you just want to love me down?”

Then the chorus is repeated, and we are left with an acoustic orchestra playing the chorus as if she were singing it until it fades.

“Prom”

We start the song with arcade-like artificial sounds, retro almost. If any song on this album was an attempt at a more pop-style format, this is that song. It has the upbeat hi-hats, the staccato keyboard beat. It almost takes you back to a time when you were younger, and the lyrics push that further as she sings

“Fearin’ not growin’ up, keepin’ me up at night, am I doin’ enough, feel like I’m wastin’ time, I promise to get a little, better as I get older, And you're so patient and sick of waitin’,”

As she gets to the chorus, she even begins to sound like a pop singer, and she says

“Please don't take it, don't take it personal, like I know you usually do.”

I can understand here that if you listen to this album for the soul and R&B, this song may be the one you skip. But, if you give it a chance, I feel it fits in really well with the rest of the album, providing a bit of a change of tone and could get you moving.

“Forget to call you mama on the weekend you should put yourself in timeout, (Sh-sh-shame, sh-sh-shame on you)”

At the end of the song, she compares the threat of growing up that she talked about during the song to rain falling on her, saying that she can’t stand it.

“The Weekend” ★

Ah, “The Weekend,” probably the most accredited song on the album. Ask someone who has any knowledge of this album at all, and they will agree, it is the one that gets the most notoriety. But does it deserve the most? Well, I’d honestly say that “Garden (Say It Like Dat)” is the best song here, but “The Weekend” is a very close second, of course with “Broken Clocks.” But we’ll get to those and study them.

The song opens with a vibe synth note sequence repeated throughout the song, and then odd high-pitched singing says what sounds like “ooh yeah.” Then the bass hits in and snaps with reverb and another note sequence in the background that ties the whole introduction together.

“You say you wanna girl, know you want me, how you want me when you got a girl?”

No, she is not in a relationship with Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, but instead, she gets her man on The Weekend. The theme of this song revolves around relationship infidelity and cheating, and almost it seems like she is in an open relationship with a man that has another girlfriend, and they just trade-off, as she gets him on “The Weekend.”

“I don't care long as you here by 10:30, no later than, drop them drawers… My man is my man is your man heard that's her man too.”

It is a confusing sequence of words, but it basically means that she shares her boyfriend with other people, knows about it, and is fine with it. But, as it can be confusing, it signifies the situation's truth that it is messy, but she wants to enjoy that she gets him for a time.

“You're like 9 to 5, I’m the weekend, ooh, oh, make him lose his mind every weekend, you take Wednesday, Thursday, then just send him my way, think I got it covered for the weekend.”

So it appears that she gets Friday and Saturday with her man, and then he has to leave her again for another woman. But, she seems confident that she will be able to do what she needs to do for him during those two days, that she “has it covered.”

“I mean I’m saying what kind of deal is two days? I need me at least ‘bout four of them, more of them, more of you on me.”

She is sad that she doesn't get more time with him and struggles to accept that he leaves her after just two days. Yet before she seemed content with it, even confident.

The song ends with a mood change with an almost tribal sounding chant, repeating “Bright ideas, we got bright ideas.”

“Go Gina”

And from a quick transition on, here we are in the next song, “Go Gina.” This song seems to be about a childhood friend, of course, named Gina. But at the same time, she is taking the opportunity to recount some of her memories from middle and high school. It is definitely an uplifting song, with the organ type note sequence and recurring bell ring, undertoned with a smooth drumline and bass.

“To come clean, I said, to be real is to be real, it’s probably true what they saying about me, probably came from my inner circle”

This seems to be a line referring to common high school petty drama, something that nearly every person has had to deal with at least some point. She basically says that her friend group is probably spreading rumors about her and that they are probably true because they came from her friends, that suddenly stabbed her in the back apparently.

“And we too stoned to pay attention, now (much too cool for 7th grade), I mean, really it’s same me, it’s old me, you know? Same s***, I been on the low key grinding”

So this line here gives us an insight that she is referring to seventh grade, that she was getting high, and then how she's always been doing the same things even that she still does now.

“But you bring me out of character, every time again, damn Gina, damn Gina, them jeans they must be uptight mama, you need some get right mama”

Her friend Gina apparently is different than her other friends (like many of us had in high school), probably sobering you up and making sure that you do the right things, which is why she says you bring me out of character. Or, another explanation for this line could be that Gina was her first female crush.

She repeats “Go Gina” a whole bunch more, with the upbeat song continuing to raise your spirits the longer you listen to it. In the end, here, we get a sudden change of mood from the song we were listening to as it switches to the sound of an orchestral swaying of notes on a record. And then, SZA does another amazing well-thought-out breath, just before the song ends.

“Garden (Say It Like Dat)” ★

So you're just going to have to listen to that transition at the end of “Go Gina” into “Garden (Say It Like Dat)” because I have never heard anything more effortless that made me smile. She breathes at the end of the previous song, so when “Garden (Say It Like Dat)” opens, she can go into her line,

“Need you for the old me, need you for my sanity, need you to remind me where I come from”

It is crafted to make the whole album feel like you are listening to SZA herself perform each and every song in front of you, in order. It’s an incredible feeling. She deserves a Grammy just for the little hidden details that she chose to include in this masterpiece of an album.

“Lie to me and say my booty gettin’ bigger even if it ain't, love me even if you ain't, love me even if it rain, love me even if it pain you.”

Again, more negative body outlooks of herself, and self-lamenting as she wants her man to love her even if he doesn't. I think we can all relate to this one, too, as there is just one person you wish would love you even if they didn't.

“Open your heart up, hoping they’ll never find out that you're anyone else, ’cause I love you, just how you are, hope you never find out who I really am, cause you'll never love me.”

Negativity towards herself again, some that we again can relate to, as we have always never felt good enough sometimes or questioned if someone actually would love us.

“You’ll never love me. But I believe you when you say it like dat, only you need me when you say it like dat.”

More self-negativity, from the girl who looks absolutely beautiful and has a wonderful personality. SZA really opens up here in this album on how everyone struggles to accept themselves, yet everyone just wants to be loved.

“You know I’m sensitive about havin’ no booty havin’ no body, only you buddy. Can you hold me when nobody’s around us?”

This line seems to be extremely telling about SZA, that she is sensitive and feels that guys don't want to be seen with her because of her body, so she says, “Can you hold me when nobody’s around us?” to try and show that she wants love even if it isn't shown publicly.

“Garden (Say It Like Dat)” is probably my most favorite song on this entire album; with such a beautiful beat and such understandable and relatable lyrics, we really get to share a personal connection with SZA for 3 minutes and 28 seconds.

Then to close the song out, grandma’s back again, with probably some of the best words of wisdom, saying

“You ain’t got s*** to say to me, I ain’t got s*** to say to you… and step, and step on. Also you black heffa, you, you, you, stand your ground. ’Cause I feel the same way, if you don’t like me you don’t have to fool with me, but you don’t have to talk about me or treat me mean, I don’t have to treat you mean, I just stay out of your way, that the way you work that one.”

“Broken Clocks” ★

Another amazing transition, of course, from the queen SZA, as she slowly fades in the beat for “Broken Clocks” in the previous quote from grandma right before it ends, provides a seamless transition to one of the best songs on the album.

The beat is comparable to waves crashing over you as you lay in the ocean; it slowly comes in, and out, and back in again. Then the drums come in, and SZA begins, saying,

“Run fast from my day job, running fast from the way it was, jump quick to a pay check, running back to the strip club”

We all seem to face the common dilemma throughout life, hating our job but jumping for a paycheck because we only work to get the sweet feeling of money to support ourselves.

“Better day than yesterday, ooh, I just take it day by day, ooh, oh, oh, never hearing what they say, ooh-ooh, I just do it my way.

We all just take it day by day. We all get so overwhelmed that we just have to take things just one at a time and do it our way. So again, SZA can easily connect with the listener.

The beat drops, and she says

“All I got is these broken clocks, I ain’t got no time, just burnin’ daylight, still love and it’s still love, and it’s still love.”

Broken clocks, a good metaphor of how stress can make us feel, that we have no time, but yet remaining through it all is love, which is one of the main things that keeps people going.

“Talking a lot, sorry I’m faded, think I forgot, you love me, you love me, you love me.”

Returning to her self-loathing again, she mentions that she forgot that someone loves her probably because she doesn’t love herself.

She then repeats the chorus and the “you love me” many times as it fades and almost sounds like it shuts down as it changes pitch.

“Anything”

This transition between songs here is probably to represent the arcade-like motif again, as the song starts with an electronic tone, with an almost high-pitched jackpot sound in the background, as she says

“Maybe I should kill my inhibition, maybe I’ll be perfect in a new dimension, maybe I should pray a little harder, or work a little smarter, this time baby promise I have learned my lesson, ooh.”

She questions herself here and wonders whether she should just stop worrying so much, as we all do. She again is self-lamenting here, saying she should pray more, work harder, the usual. We all have things we feel like we should do more, but yet we don’t. And that’s because we are human. And SZA proves this point, and she accurately demonstrates that we don’t need to be perfect.

“You could take me anywhere, I hope you will, I hope you will, I hope you will,”

She wants to be taken anywhere by this person she is talking about, presumably her lover. We have all wanted that, all fallen in love that we would do anything they wanted.

“Do, do you even know I’m alive? Do, do you even know I, I”

She questions whether some people even acknowledge her existence, as she feels alone and isolated as many people do.

She closes out the song by repeating this line over and over and then fades out.

“Wavy (Interlude) [feat. James Fauntleroy]”

I am not going to lie; if there was a song that was my least favorite on this album, it is this one. While it is not bad by any means, it just doesn’t feel like it sticks in with the rest of the album to me, and it is just not my style of music that I enjoy. With that said, it is still a good song and deserves to be looked into.

“Just give as much as you take, forgive as much as you hate, or get the f*** out, I’ve been in the dugout, looking for a way out, you know just takin’ it slow”

She has an odd line here, but it is very catchy at times. But under closer examination, it makes sense. Give as much as you take, forgive as much as you hate. Do your part not to be a d***head.

Then SZA and James Fauntleroy go into a bit of back and forth talk where they say that they are “wavin’,” which I am unclear what they mean by this, but assume it means like vibe. This is a nice little mood booster in between the other songs, as it is catchy. And it definitely does its job as an “interlude.”

“Normal Girl”

“Normal Girl” is one song that has definitely withstood the test of time. I have seen playlists still include this song, and I catch myself having it stuck in my head for days on end.

A simple vibey synth plays a simple sequence that is the basis for this song. But of course, as we know SZA, it ain’t about the music, it's about them lyrics.

When I hear her lyrics, the first thing I think of is swaying back and forth, as they just have that sort of feel to them. She lines the syllables together to form flows in her verses that make you want to sway back and forth. And isn’t that what you want from a song?

“Oh you love the way I pop my top, or love how I lose my cool, or love how I look at you, say why?”

She’s saying here that her lover likes to see her angry for some reason, possibly that it makes him laugh, as people who are close to you do.

“Wish I was the type of girl that you take over to mama, the type of girl, I know my daddy, He’d be proud of, yeah, be proud of, be proud of, be proud, you know, you know”

She says that she wishes that she was the model girl to take to your parents as if she isn’t. This is her self-loathing coming through again, and it’s very personal of SZA to talk about these things. But representation is good, and it shows girls that they aren’t as bad as they think they are.

“I wish I was a normal girl, oh my (how do I be? How do I be your lady?)”

Now really pondering these lyrics, I realized that it wouldn’t make sense for her to be a normal girl or why she would wish she was one. She has her whole career based around how she is so relatable that really, if anything, she is normal by today’s standards (except I don’t think most normal girls have the Time Album Of 2017).

“This time next year I’ll be living so good, won’t remember your name, I swear, living so good, living so good, living so good,”

So what I can take from this line is that either she knew this album would be a smash hit, or she knew that she would be over whoever she wished she could be better for.

The song fades out as the guitar plays its final notes.

“Pretty Little Birds (feat. Isaiah Rashad)”

“Pretty Little Birds” begins quietly but takes on a psychedelic electric vibe straight from the start.

“You are but a phoenix among feathers, you’re broken by the waves among the sea, they’ll let you die, they’ll let you wash away, but you swim as well as you fly”

This beautiful lyric both personifies “you” as SZA compares you to a phoenix and that you swim and fly. It’s almost as if SZA is having a conversation with you and is complimenting you.

“Pretty little bird, you’ve hit the window a few times… you still ain’t scared of no heights”

Her lyrics and how she delivers them, and how the song backs up her lyrics make the listener feel like they are flying in the sky with many other birds, like at sunset, whipping through the clouds.

“When the morning comes I hope you’re still mine”

The fear of sudden loss and the love of love is all expressed here in her lyrics. Uncertainty is always in the back of our minds that something, anything, could happen, and she recognizes that feeling that keeps many of us up at night.

“I wanna be your golden goose, I wanna shave my legs for you, I wanna take all of my hair down and let you lay in it”

This is an odd line as if you look back to the previous songs; she mentions that she is sorry that she “doesn’t shave her legs,” so this is a way of saying that she wants to be special to the person she is referring to.

Then, Isaiah Rashad comes in with his stark part.

“Lately I feel like I’m robbin’ myself, like I’m robbin’ minds, diamonds cerebral be good to your cortex,”

He continues the flying feeling of the lyrics that SZA created, with wild lyrics that question how you treat your inner mind.

“My wings don’t spread like they used to, but I wanna fly with you, till we hit the heavens”

Beautiful, just beautiful. Leaning into your self-lamenting enough to wish for love and wonder and want to fly away into the sky until you “hit the heavens.”

The violins reach a climactic high at the end of the song, stop, and the electric psych fades the song out.

“20 Something” ★

Oh. My. God. “20 Something” is the best song on this album, hands down. Truly personal, acoustic, a perfect way to end the album. The guitar line begins the song, and this is the only accompaniment that SZA needs to express her inner thoughts in a beautiful singing fashion.

“How you ain’t say you was moving forward? Honesty hurts when you’re getting older, I gotta say, I’ll miss the way you need me, yeah”

Again she leans into how she will miss love as she loses it.

“How could it be? 20 something, all alone still, not a thing in my name, ain’t got nothing, runnin’ from love, only know fear.”

She plays on her fear of growing up and her fear of love, yet how she yearns for love as well, so all in all, only knowing fear.

“That’s me, Miss 20 something, ain’t got nothing, runnin’ from love, wish you were here, oh”

So I am just going to hope that she meant to throw in this subtle Pink Floyd reference, but in actuality, I assume it was merely coincidental. But regardless, she seems to say this “Miss 20 something,” as a way to make it sound like her age defines her, and the fact that she is nowhere in her eyes makes her feel lost.

“Stuck in them 20 somethings, good luck on them 20 somethings, but God bless these 2o somethings,”

What a perfectly demonstrated dilemma, of how she can’t escape the 20 somethings, and she feels she is struggling.

“Hopin’ my 20 somethings won’t end, hopin’ to keep the rest of my friends, prayin’ the 2o somethings won’t kill me, kill me”

She realizes that her 20 somethings also are the last years that she has before she is an “official adult,” so at the same time that she wants to escape them, she never wants them to end because she doesn’t have to face her thirties. She is also worried that she will lose friends as you begin to settle down, build families, and start the rest of her life.

“It’s permanent like a riptide, this time, waves crashing fast, I try, think of the past, please stay, (how could it be?)”

Now that “(How could it be?)” in the singing background is SZA again backing herself up with this angelic voice that encapsulates the entire rest of the song. It leads into the final time the chorus is reiterated, and then she repeats the “stuck in them 20 somethings” repeatedly to end the song. But wait! Of course, there is one last audio clip from her mother.

“And if it’s an illusion, I don’t want to wake up, I’m going to hang onto it, because the, the, the alternative is an abyss, is just a hole, a darkness, a nothingness, who wants that, you know? So that’s what I think about CTRL, and that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

And then we hear SZA on the other end of what appears to be a phone call, and she says,

“That was beautiful, mommy, that was perfect.”

And boom! We made it through the entire album: all 14 songs, all 49 minutes of pure bliss. SZA really encapsulated the feeling of self-doubt and loathing, stress, love, loss, and sexuality, all in this absolute masterpiece of an album. And I think we can all see why it was such a big hit. She managed to relate to the listener personally in nearly every song (and not in a cheesy way). She was also backed up by incredible musical scores, gorgeous pieces of art that furthered her lyrics and made it the masterpiece.

Thank you for reading this, and if you made it this far, please give me a follow and check out some of my other works. Peace, Love, and Listen to CTRL!

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