Last year, on the morning of my 19th birthday, I walked into a tattoo parlor in Ypsilanti with one idea in mind. I greeted my heavily pierced tattoo artist at his post with a small piece of paper containing my desired design. He looked up at me with a slightly amused smile, asking, “Just that?” The paper read only four single letters: Ctrl. A simple design for a professional like him, but such an emotionally charged word for me. I confirmed the design, and he started the process. While casually wiping away the mixture of blood and ink that was dripping down my wrist, he jokingly asked me what was doing Ctrl so extraordinary that I wanted to have it permanently engraved on my body. I laughed, before telling him how I fell in love with this album.
When Ctrl came out in 2017, it wasn’t on my radar initially. I remember hearing âLove Galore,â the album’s second single, all over the radio that summer. The infectious digitally produced synths of the song’s instrumentals, coupled with the carefree lyrics of the verses and the fun syncope that rapper Travis Scott adds to the song quickly made it a favorite for me. Still, I never bothered to listen to the entire project until a friend of mine posted a rave review of the album on her Instagram page. When I first listened to the album, I was immediately impressed by the brilliance of the production. SZA’s ethereal voice floats over electronic R&B instrumentals as she builds this world in which she is the main character, regaining control of her life despite setbacks and inner turmoil.
She incorporates orchestral arrangements and 808 drum beats to weave through genres and create her own interpretation of neo-soul sound. The first time I listened, I couldn’t relate to much of the deeply personal subject that SZA had relayed on the album. The subjects of love, anxiety and sexuality were far too complicated for my 15 year old self. However, I knew I could admire a good album when I heard one. As I got older and developed more complex feelings about myself and my relationships, I came to appreciate Ctrl even more.
The album almost looks like a sound diary. There is a deep level of vulnerability to every song, which I think sets Ctrl, his first studio album, from his previous mixtape, Z. SZA dives even deeper with Ctrl, discovering the uncomfortable truths about femininity and confronting them with a bold tone. She even goes so far as to include recordings of phone calls with her late mother and grandmother, which serve as interludes throughout the album. I find solace in songs like âNormal Girl,â which deals with fleeting feelings of inadequacy and estrangement. On the track, SZA longs for the normalcy that comes with being a girl who fits in perfectly with societal norms. On the chorus, she wishes to be just a “normal girl,” while simultaneously acknowledging that she will probably never adhere to conventional guidelines of desirability. This song touches me very closely because, as a black woman, I understand it as it impeccably articulates the feelings of frustration and insecurity that can arise at the intersection of these identities.
My favorite line from “Normal Girl” is: “This time next year I’ll live so well, I won’t remember any pain, I swear.” I often find myself in fights with feelings of impostor syndrome. Whether it’s in academia, where a majority of my peers don’t come from the same background as me, or even in social settings, where I feel like I’m sticking out like a sore thumb, I always try to push myself. prove that I am where I am supposed to be. When I hear that line, it sounds like words of comfort for a future version of myself, a promise that those feelings of self-doubt will fade over time. While impostor syndrome will surely come back to me at some point, this verse reminds me that no ordeal will last forever.
By the end of the brief session I had spoken to my tattoo artist with my full thesis on the beauties of Ctrl. When he left, he promised me that he would listen to him. I can’t wait to follow up with him when I return to the salon to have my tattoo touched up later this year. I hope he got to hear at least a fraction of the art that I do every time I listen to the album. Whether it’s sitting in my bedroom, cathartic yelling at “Supermodel” or driving in my car shouting the lyrics to “Drew Barrymore” with my closest friends, this album is a work of art that transports me through the highs. and the downs of my life. I consider Ctrl an extension of my own thoughts – an album that puts into words the most inexplicable but visceral emotions I feel. The same melodies and lyrics that I have heard hundreds of times still resonate with me just as deeply every time. I grew up with this album and my experiences are permanently linked to its storytelling. The tattoo that now lives on my wrist reminds me of that physically.
MiC columnist Udoka Nwansi can be contacted at [email protected]