Gaining Ctrl: Revisiting SZA's Debut


by stephen whiting


Last June saw the much anticipated release of Ctrl from the songstress Solana Rowe, known more commonly as SZA. Now, a year later, it remains just as relevant in the world of music. Aptly named, SZA’s masterful narrative focuses on aspects of control, gaining, and subsequently losing control.  What makes Ctrl stand out is SZA’s ability to capture her struggles with doubt and belonging in her own life from a perspective that is rarely seen by those within her genre. Yet, despite the many accolades of her debut, SZA dealt with many setbacks leading to its release. Labels, relationships, and rejections isolated her within a living nightmare before she would reach the success of Ctrl.

SZA’s humble beginnings in music started at 19 after dropping out of college. Her brother, a rapper by the name of Mnhattan, encouraged SZA to make a few background vocals for some of his songs despite her claims she had no idea what she was doing. In 2011, SZA once again was intertwined with fate. Selling T-Shirts for a streetwear company called 10.Deep led her to meet Punch (real name Terrence Henderson). the head of Top Dawg Entertainment, who happened to overhear a track with her vocals at the festival he was attending. In 2012, she released the EP See.SZA.Run, and signed with TDE the following year.

Pushing forward, SZA released two more EP’s that followed her initials , S and Z. But close behind success is often tragedy. During those years SZA would have to witness the death of three ex-boyfriends as well as the death of her grandmother. Like any new artist SZA felt the pressure to release new material but felt unprepared having no formal training whatsoever. SZA admitted to the stress saying “I don’t think I knew what an album was like. I didn’t know how to make an album, I just became an artist one mixtape ago” (Complex). Working countless hours with producer James Fauntleroy led to many tracks but still no sign of a release. Reaching her limit of tolerance with her label, SZA tweeted

“I actually quit. @iamstillpunch can release my album if he ever feels like it. Y’all be blessed”

which would circulate across several media outlets. Crippled by emotion, SZA decided something had to change saying “Some days I felt militant and vengeful. Some days I felt defeated and I actually cried because I just didn’t understand. Then you go through, ‘It’s never going to change, so might as well just go with the flow.’ And then you go through, ‘No. I’m not asking anymore. I’m going to make it change”.

And change she did. Overcoming multiple setbacks, Ctrl was released on June 9th and would go on to become platinum, receive multiple Grammy nominations, and become a sold out nationwide tour. Of her success SZA was taken aback, saying “I didn’t even f**k with my own album, so I was so confused and almost, like, angry that everyone f**ked with it so much. It meant everything I felt about myself was wrong. And it was just like, If that’s not the truth, then what is the truth?”. Despite her own doubts, SZA’s success is a beacon to others, a champion to black women, and a sign of hope for clueless twentysomethings. The tribulations of Ctrl would lead to a new revelation for SZA, “In a weird way, my acceptance of a lack of control gave me the gift of control”.

listen to ctrl on spotify now.