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On a recent Tuesday morning, SZA calls from her bedroom in Los Angeles, right after she’s finished smoking what she calls a “very chill joint.” (“I’m high, but I’m not tripping,” she says.) Her goals for the rest of the day are a stoner’s delight, including fixing herself some munchies (“I have to eat this breakfast burrito”) and fastidiously combing her hair. (“My hair is fucked up, I don’t know how I’m going to fix this shit.”) But she’s also busier than your average morning stoner: Later, she’s got to head to a record signing for her brand-new album, CTRL, which has quickly won rhapsodic critical acclaim. (“I didn’t even know people liked me,” she says. “I’m just confused.”) And she’s got to accomplish everything before her crippling daily anxiety, which she explores on CTRL, sets in for the afternoon. (“Once my anxiety kicks in, I won’t be able to think for the rest of the day.”) Yes, it sounds as though her life is a psychotropic plot to a Pineapple Express sequel, but, even if it’s just the weed talking, SZA, 26, still seems like she’s taking it all in stride, even the tough stuff. “I just started getting into optimism yesterday,” she says. “Anything is possible. I’m optimistic as fuck.”
She should be: CTRL is a triumph, a piercing psychedelic collection of r&b with open-book-honest lyrics about love and sex and loss. Though she signed to Top Dawg Entertainment — Kendrick Lamar’s label — in 2013 based off a series of promising EPs, the album was finally released this June, after years of delays, in part because Rihanna snatched up SZA’s intended first single, “Consideration,” for her 2016 album, Anti. “The day before I was going to drop ‘Consideration,’ Rihanna said, ‘I want this song.’ There was a whole rollout for my album that was going to start. I shot a video for it! But the universe was like, Nah, not yet,” says SZA, adding that another reason for the delay was her own self-doubt. “It was a porridge of so much different shit,” she says. “I feel like I wasted a lot of time being afraid to put anything out because I thought people would hate it.”
Which is sort of what the album is about to begin with: indecision and insecurity, particularly when it comes to relationships. CTRL is like a modern millennial’s guide to failed and fickle hookups, complete with lyrical references to the healing power of binge-watching Narcos when you’re feeling despondent — think of it as a companion piece to Mitski’s Puberty 2 and Solange’s A Seat at the Table, two recent albums that were also quite honest about low self-esteem and interpersonal issues. SZA has turned herself into a voice of her generation largely by being her poetic weird self. “I’m a mess. An actual mess,” she says. In each song, she paints a vivid picture of how wild it is to date in distraction-filled 2017, using real episodes from her past to animate the anguish she’s endured — including, on the opening track, the story of how she slept with a friend of her ex-boyfriend’s on Valentine’s Day mostly out of spite. “I used to be very vengeful and do things that would hurt me just to hurt other people,” she says. “I take my shit so far — or, I used to. I’ve tried to grow out of it.”
There is something of a “battle of the sexes” theme here — in the music video to the first single, “Love Galore,” a collaboration with rapper Travis Scott, Scott is shown being murdered with an ax as revenge for an indiscretion. And Kendrick Lamar, her labelmate, pops up for a verse on the glittering “Doves in the Wind” to offer something of a barbed masculine response. Then there’s the bump-and-grind r&b of “The Weekend,” which, depending on what mood you’re in, is either an empowered ode to being a man’s sexy side chick or a depressing revelation about what some people, even special ones like SZA, put up with from toxic paramours. “Men and women treat each other like shit,” she says. “I treat myself like shit.” But SZA insists this isn’t about hating the opposite gender, even the real-life men she’s singing about on the album. “It wasn’t even to bash them. I didn’t make this to think about how they feel,” she says of her ex-boyfriends. “I wish them well, but I also don’t give a fuck.”
SZA grew up Solána Imani Rowe in Maplewood, New Jersey, raised by a strict Christian mother and Muslim father. She wore a hijab for some time at her dad’s request. “When you grow up hella sheltered, when you never experience boys, the world hits you very hard,” she says. “I was just a weird-ass little kid. I loved horror movies, I loved dark novels, I loved witchcraft. I watched Xena and Hercules and went to play in the woods by myself.” She took a sharp turn at seventeen when she scored a job as a bartender at a strip club. “I made $600 a day bartending there. I didn’t have a license and I was definitely underage, but it was easy,” she says. “It was low-key fun as fuck.” She had been writing poetry and singing as a hobby, and she finally put her words to beats she grabbed from Bandcamp, releasing a number of songs that gained her buzz quickly and caught the eye of TDE, who signed her and welcomed her into its family.
She recorded CTRL between Los Angeles and a little studio she and her production team — whom she affectionately calls “the boys” and who include Cam O’bi, Tyran Donaldson, Carter Lang, and ThankGod4Cody — built in Lang’s family home on beautiful Lake Michigan. “It’s the middle of fucking nowhere. No [phone] service. Just one little landline phone. We did ’shrooms, we rode bikes, we kayaked, we went on the dunes, we explored the woods,” she says. “And we just made shit.” She is modest about how she was able to conjure music so unlike anything else out there, a shimmering mix of influences that shouldn’t work together. She has cited artists as diverse as Limp Bizkit and Björk as inspirations, and you wouldn’t be wrong if you labeled this a neo-soul album, an r&b album, or an electronic album. “One of the boys would make a drum loop, then Carter would add a synth, then Ty would take it in the corner and add something. It’s a vibe,” she says. “The boys know I love chimes, and they know if they throw a bell in that hoe, I’m going to sing on it.”
It’s the crushing “Normal Girl,” near the end of the album, that is something of a heartbreaking philosophical treatise for this SZA era. On it, she describes a fear that so many enduringly single people possess: that they’re just too weird to ever find someone who can appreciate them for who they are. That they’ll never be normal enough to land the fairy-tale ending. But what could make SZA, so talented and successful and cool, feel not normal? “I don’t know how to not say what I’m feeling. I’m really annoying,” she says. “I wanna go to therapy, but I can’t remember to go.” Does the immediate and positive response to CTRL give her a boost of confidence? “I’m definitely still trying to find [my confidence],” she says, “but I don’t feel like I have to stop glowing to find it.” Which is what CTRL is proof of — you can be confused and anxious and a mess and even stoned out of your mind, and still say something profound. “I’m going to do better next time. Make the music, talk about how I feel, and that’s it,” she says, as if she didn’t do it incredibly well already on CTRL. “I can’t believe anyone likes this. Tell everyone thank you for me.” And then she hangs up.