What does it mean to be in Ctrl? A glimpse into the importance of SZA's "Ctrl" five years later.
The time has come for camp ctrl to rise again.
CREDIT: Coup De Main Magazine
After five years of award-winning collaborations with artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Doja Cat and Summer Walker, swollen vocal cords, broken ankles and passive-aggressive tweets directed toward her record label, SZA has released the deluxe edition of "Ctrl" on June 9. Five years to the day that her debut album reshaped the R&B genre.
Upon receiving the Spotify notification on my phone, my initial reaction was confusion. At first, I didn’t realize that "Ctrl (Deluxe)" was a new music venture due to the re-release possessing virtually the same concept art as the 2017 album.
After registering that Rowe had only released an expanded album with seven additional songs (many of which have been leaked on SoundCloud for several years), I’ll admit. I was disappointed. After five years of her 30 million Spotify followers begging for a follow-up album, I had already analyzed Rowe’s struggle with self-control in "Tread Carefully" and pitied her struggle in maintaining healthy relationships in "Jodie."
Nevertheless, I religiously began streaming "Ctrl" once again. And staring at the minutely different album cover, I came to a stark realization.
Despite listening to the iconic songs for five years, I finally understood the messages behind the album as a now young “20 something.”
Because how could a 15-year-old fully comprehend complex themes of what it means for a woman to remain in control?
An intimate diary on the complexities of dating in your twenties
The release of "Ctrl" marked Rowe’s first debut album under the record label TDE, signing artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock and Schoolboy Q.
"Ctrl" risked exploring topics in the R&B and rap industry that have continued to be met with animosity and scrutiny: viewing a woman as a complex individual in romantic, sexual relationships. Rowe spills the nitty-gritty details of her past relationships, expressing her sexual desires while detailing her internal battles with attachment, appeasement, insecurity, and female manipulation.
By simply expressing her raw emotions, Rowe challenges the status quo that perpetuates in the music industry: the dominance of the male gaze and the absence of the female perspective.
A perfect example of this can be seen in the infamous The Breakfast Club interview with SZA.
Within the first five minutes of the interview, radio host of The Breakfast Club Lenard Larry McKelvy (aka Charlamagne Tha God) reveals his interpretation of the album as a story about a spiteful “side-chick” who wants her significant other to herself. After Rowe questions McKelvy about what other songs on the album directly allude to a “side-chick” besides "The Weekend," McKelvy struggles to connect the theme to any of the other tracks on her album. Rowe’s smirk is evident of what she is thinking. Got you.
Calmly, the artist responds, “That’s it. That’s the only one.”
Rowe then explains how she believes that “side-chick” is a “male breed term.”
“What I am actually saying in the song is, ‘My man is your man. We all share the same dude. I don’t care. I don’t need to be his girl. None of us are his girl. All of us are just out here trying to get different things for different reasons,’” says Rowe.
This explains my point. The male-dominated R&B and rap industry has heavily excluded the feminine voice in songs pertaining to dating culture to the point that it’s hard for men to comprehend the female perspective. Leaving listeners to automatically associate the meaning behind songs to the most popular tropes in R&B pertaining to the female significant other.
The “side-chick.” The insecure girlfriend. The angry, “crazy” partner.
In the span of 21 tracks, "Ctrl" debunks and dismantles various false narratives, reclaiming these stereotypes while weaving a nonchalant attitude across the lyrics through cloudy, dream-like beats.
"Ctrl" is a breath of fresh air for women. It validates every emotion that is experienced within serious or ‘fling’ relationships. It heals the guilt that women often experience for ‘giving in’ to sexual desire. Quite frankly, it reminds us that being a ‘Normal Girl’ is conceptual and not up to a man’s interpretation.
"Ctrl" and Black feminist theory
While Ctrl actively dismantles misconceptions rooted in the male gaze, Rowe’s sexual journey and exploration of emotions also tackle common stereotypes that continue to plague Black women within the media.
"Ctrl’s" messages and themes align with ideas explored in Black feminist theory, which analyzes the intersection of sociological issues that are unique to Black females. By analyzing SZA’s lyricism, she reclaims two major stereotypes that have been used to place Black women in metaphorical cages for decades: “the Sapphire” and “the Jezebel” stereotypes.
“The Jezebel” stereotype is rooted in the false narrative that Black women are “seductive, alluring, worldly, beguiling, tempting and lewd.” Originally coined by K. Sue Jewell, “the Jezebel’ concept was used to demonize Black women while praising white women for their “self-respect, self-control and modesty.” Therefore, Black female rappers and artists, such as SZA, Cardi B and Meghan Thee Stallion, have received criticism for perpetuating these stereotypes through their sexualized lyricism and body-positive performances.
In SZA’s "Awkward," Rowe details how despite the crippling awkwardness after turning a friendship into a situationship she’s willing to “keep it awkward” in order to satisfy her sexual desires. Rowe’s normalization of Black women’s sexuality through each of her tracks detracts from the influence of “Jezebel” stereotypes, aiding in eradicating the negative perception of Black women's sexuality.
In the Grammy-nominated "Love Galore," SZA details how she’s surprised that her romantic interest continues to stay in contact with her after saying hateful things to him. Rowe’s recurring theme of emotional self-expression (from love to hate) directly contrasts “the Sapphire” trope.
“The Sapphire” trope asserts that Black women are “rude, loud, malicious, stubborn and overbearing” due to simply being “bitter” and “unhappy” people. Ultimately, ‘the Sapphire” trope invalidates the reasoning behind any negative emotion communicated by a Black female.
Through SZA’s ability to express her distaste of past relationships, "Love Galore" and "Ctrl" reverse the villainization of Black women expressing anger and a spectrum of emotions.
The importance of a Black woman's perspective in R&B on sex and emotions is a major step in eliminating these demonizing stereotypes, allowing Black women to finally "ctrl" their bodies and minds within the media.
What does being in ctrl mean to you?
While I hope that one day a Spotify notification will appear on my phone and reveal a new album, I encourage all new members of camp ctrl to take the time to listen to "Ctrl" and compare what it meant to you five years ago and what it means to you now.
For me, my shifted perspective of "Ctrl" can be explained through the slight alterations to her album cover.
As a 15-year-old, I simply enjoyed the carefree and whimsical beats. Similar to how the 2017 album cover possesses a pink or “rose-colored” appearance.
As a 19-year-old, I now understand the impact, effort and struggle that SZA faced in order to produce an album that breaks boundaries for Black women and women alike. Therefore, SZA’s body language appears more assertive than the 2017 cover and a brighter, polaroid-resembling image encourages its listeners to truly examine her album under a “bright light.”
Five years later.
Allie Sinkovich is an Online Writer for Rowdy Magazine. When she's not studying, she's probably asleep or looking for cats or injured wildlife to foster.