SZA on the Long Road to Her Debut Album, Ctrl

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There’s an unapologetically girly quality to Ctrl, Solána Rowe’s, a.k.a. SZA’s, debut album, like she’s thinking aloud about growing up in a dreamy singsong. She’s inspired by teen romances, ’90s Drew Barrymore films, and the preternatural quality of Spike Lee movies. On Ctrl, you can hear SZA pulling in all these influences, building herself up and letting herself breathe.

“I know on ‘Supermodel’ when I say I need you, each time I said that I was saying something different, I was talking to someone different,” she told Vulture over the phone, the day before Ctrl’s release. At the time, James Comey was delivering his Senate testimony. “I’m really scared, because no one’s mentioning Pence!” she said. “And it’s like, we have to get rid of the whole shit! We can’t just get rid of one!”

Ctrl begins and ends with her mother’s voice, a structure that allows SZA to talk to herself more freely. “My mom has spent her whole life living in openness and acceptance and I really never understood,” she says. There’s a special kind of generational inheritance that comes from black moms advising black daughters. It’s one that Beyoncé and Solange have returned to time and again, including snippets of their conversations with their mother in their work. But SZA, 26, is at the center of this record, using her mother and grandmother’s words to help her work on her own heart. “It’s not like you can practice a little self-love, and then you just have it for a lifetime. No, it’s more gradual. You’ve got to start this hobby — this habit — of feeding yourself love,” she says.

Sometimes SZA hates men but tolerates them — “Love Galore” is all playful misandry that swears off men, “Weekend” has her pitching an idea of time-sharing a player — and other times she’s pushing herself to find what kind of love she needs and is willing to give. On “Normal Girl” she wonders whose approval she needs, and admits to wanting it: “Wish I was the type of girl you take over to mama,” she sings. “The type of girl, I know my daddy, he’d be proud of.”

When Rihanna opened Anti with “Consideration,” a banging, clanging declaration of independence produced by and featuring SZA, it laid out the rules for SZA’s own debut: “I got to do things my own way darling,” that song demanded. “You should just let me, why you will never let me grow?”

It was my favorite song of 2016, the ultimate tease of a project begging to burst. We’d heard parts of SZA before, in her EPs and on features, but Ctrl is SZA in full, insecurities and all. It builds on those mixtapes, but arrives with a vivid, shining afterglow they lacked. She said a lot of the album’s long delay — both she and Top Dawg Entertainment repeatedly promised its arrival for ages, and she hasn’t released anything since her EP Z, in 2014 — came from overthinking it. But not a single moment of Ctrl feels overwrought.

The day before Ctrl’s release, we talked about stepping away to a cottage in Michigan to record the album, her taste in movies, the sound of her mom’s voice, and why the hell it took so long to get this album out.

Talk me through writing through the album. Did it come organically from a specific breakup or a specific relationship?
I want to say probably my earliest [breakup], since that’s when your ass is the softest — you don’t know what’s going on. You don’t know how to protect yourself. You’re just a jelly shell, open and ready for love and feelings, and to be played out. I was too vulnerable. My first relationship, fresh out of high school — I definitely thought that was my boyfriend for sure. It definitely turned out to not be my boyfriend.

Were you a side chick in this relationship?
I don’t know! Even this girl told me the other day, all these years later, that he never claimed me and he was telling people that I wasn’t his girlfriend. I knew that, and I had an idea that he was a playboy. He was partying and had a lot of girls and a whole bunch of other stuff. I was definitely madly in love and I switched schools just to be closer to him. It was weird.

I was deeply in love with this boy! He said he loved me to me and would pretend to be in this whole other world when it was just me and him. He lived a different life in the real world. That has taught me something crazy, and I just couldn’t believe it. Like, “Why would you hurt me?” Or “Why would boys even want to do that? Why didn’t you just tell me the truth or how you felt or that you were you talking to everyone?”

That’s really relatable. There’s so much pain in needing a certain type of love that your partner can’t provide, and Ctrl really speaks to that.
Thank you. But needing to be loved and what I’m singing about isn’t even about men, it’s needing to be loved in general: by myself, by my friends. I know on “Supermodel” when I say, “I need you,” I know that each time I said that I was saying something different, I was talking to someone different. I feel like there are mad people in my life that wonder if I need them, so I was kind of reassuring them that I do.

Why do you think that is?
I’ve always had a weird issue with authority or opening up to people and being that way. [It’s] not even just authority, it’s with friends, my mom, family. I’ve never asked my mom for advice until five years ago. I only just started talking to my mom about things that I cared about on a personal level. I don’t know, maybe I have intimacy issues or something.

And yet Ctrl begins and ends with your mom giving you advice. What’s your relationship like now?
My mom got sick last year and I did not figure that moms wouldn’t be alive forever, or that my mom wouldn’t be alive forever, or that she could ever get sick. My mom is literally bionic, and all of a sudden she’s getting radiation and trying to keep it from all of us, downplaying everything … It was very bizarre to think that this amazing person that it was convenient to be annoyed by [might be] gone very, very soon. The reevaluation is so ugly. It’s so violent. It’s aggressive. Now I’m obsessed with my mom, and I’m not even sure that it’s all the way healthy because part of it is rooted in fear of losing her, and part of it is rooted in admiration.

What’s the best piece of advice she’s given you?
About intuition. I tell her all these weird thoughts that I had, sometimes when I have thoughts they just happen afterwards. Thoughts that I can’t explain and they’re not necessarily my — never mind, this sounds weird.

No, I think I get it — almost like a déjà vu feeling with The Secret or the law of attraction?
Maybe, right, yes? I talk to her about being afraid of everything that’s coming my way. She’s very neutral, she’s like, “Whatever’s happening, good or bad, there’s a door opening for you. A door just means there’s a door, you can go either way. You shouldn’t try to cultivate in a controlled direction. Your only job is to be open and prepare to receive.”

My mom spent her whole life living in openness and acceptance, and I really never understood. It was irritating that she was so unwaveringly peaceful about everything. When I realized all you could do was be open — like really be open, really prepare — I started listening to everything. Now, I’m not trying anymore to think really hard, like, “Can I estimate how this will go or what people will think? Can I estimate what my next step is or if I’ll win a Grammy?” All that thinking and resistance I’m creating, it doesn’t lead me anywhere, it just creates clutter. You just have to get out of your own way. It’s interesting. You have to be there and hear her voice. Do you hear how weird and soothing her voice is?

Mmhm.
She talks like that all the time, even when she’s angry. When she’s yelling, that’s her tone of voice. Sometimes it’s like, “This is weird, you’re weird. Stop doing this. I need you to just be normal and curse me out!”

There’s a kind of dreamy, maybe spiritual quality to a lot of these songs. In “Anything,” you ask, “Maybe I should pray a little harder.” What’s your relationship to your faith now?
I think I’m very aware of a higher power or a presence. I’ve gone through so many different stages like atheism, Islam, extreme Christianity. I think now I’m in this place where I just respect whatever this system is that’s running and moving the world like a well-oiled machine.

I know gratitude makes me feel better. I know when I treat people well, I feel really good. I know when I’m really pissed, I make a list of gratefulness for all the things that have happened in the world, even if it’s small things like trees or eyesight or sunshine. I just feel better [when I do that]. I don’t even know why that works, I just feel like it has something to do with whoever put me here. There’s a reason for why when you do good you feel good.

Is there a memory that stands out from making Ctrl?
Definitely. My favorite is Michigan. It was my first time renting my own equipment and trying to source stuff and getting an engineer and recording in a space that was really in the middle of nowhere where I’ve never been. Carter [Lang], my bass player, he produced “Drew Barrymore” and he was also a producer on “Supermodel” and “Broken Clocks” and “Go Gina” and a bunch of other stuff. His granny has a cottage on Lake Michigan, in the woods. His family built it up into a bigger house and we all drove out and set up a bunch of studios: one in the basement, one in the kitchen, and one in a bedroom.

We just made stuff on our own time. There was no [cell] service. All we had was a landline. There’s the lake and one grocery store. All we could do was just vibe out, but it was so peaceful. We made “Love Galore” there, we made “Broken Clocks” there, we made “twoAM” there, which isn’t on the album but I dropped [it]. We’ve gone there like three times, and every time something comes from there. The first time we went, “Consideration” and “Drew Barrymore” came from that. Michigan is just a really special place. That’s my favorite part of the album.

What’s your process for choosing who to collaborate with, or who to feature?
I never think about features. I’m too shy to initially ask for a feature, so I definitely never go into a song thinking about who I could ask. On “Love Galore,” I heard Travis [Scott] and Young Thug, but I always ask people that I’m already a fan of because I know what they would do. Travis’s voice is perfect, his texture is perfect. He’s got like, the syncopation, and then like the cadence for it — he’s gonna eat this! We’re not even [close personal friends], I just know who I like. I’m a proper fan.

Black women are so often taught to make themselves smaller or not ask for what we want, but Ctrl just feels so pure and letting your insecurities take up space and asking to address them.
Yeah. I think pretending to not be insecure was hurting me more than just accepting these are things I feel weird about. I’m trying to break these things actively sometimes — so wearing less makeup or wearing no makeup for a week. You really have to put yourself in self-esteem school! Loving yourself and practicing self-love is not just a task. Self-esteem is a slow process.

I thought I would just be confident overnight, and it’s just not like that. I think I’ve come a long way from high school or middle school. I thought I was the smallest being that ever lived and that no one would ever see me in the world. I needed somebody else’s permission to breathe. I went from that place to feeling like I’m okay wherever I’m at. I’m still in my head, it’s slow progress, but I feel like by the time I’m 50, I’ll be at peak confidence. [Laughs.]

What does peak confidence look like at 50 for you?
A fire-ass haircut, a really nice color job. I would probably go gray early, just because I feel like sick, fly gray hair is really awesome. Really Phylicia Rashad, but a smudge more sexy.

Angela Bassett!
Ooh, yes. Angela Bassett, but with gray hair.

Last year you told Teen Vogue that at one point all of the songs were named after actresses.
“Consideration” was called “LouAnne Johnson” which is the character Michelle Pfeiffer played in Dangerous Minds. Of course, “Drew Barrymore.” Each song basically was named after a movie title or an actress. That was so long ago, though, that was such a different concept.

When I heard the beat for “Consideration” — I don’t know why — I really like Michelle Pfeiffer’s hair. It’s always thick and bouncy. [Laughs.] I watch movies for hair, like [Sharon Stone’s character] Ginger in Casino and Penelope Cruz in Blow or like Love and Basketball. Even Michelle Pfeiffer’s hair in Scarface, her having that fluffy bob. There’s just something about details and accessories. I love color correction. I love texture. I just think of movies when I hear music. I think of scoring, like Jon Brion and all kinds of stuff.

Talk to me about your favorite movies.
I love Six Degrees of Separation. It’s like one long poem, it feels like everyone is speaking in prose, or it kind of reminds me of a play but on film. There’s just so much double meaning. Every time you watch it, you learn something different and the perspective on the human mind and demographics, like the separation of different economic circles and stereotypes and stigmas and empathy.

Rosemary’s Baby is also one of my favorite movies. I like the implied horror that’s not really obvious. There are beautiful textures and colors in both of those. They both have these warm yellows and it’s all blown out. It’s just beautiful. I love, of course, Vanilla Sky, all those creepy movies.

Right, like almost thrillers.
Eyes Wide Shut. Requiem for a Dream is probably the most headache of a movie but it’s fun to watch with my sister. I love every Spike Lee film ever made for different reasons. He’s also an example of that poetic energy where you feel like his work is passionate, it feels like a song. His movies are one fire-ass music video that I can’t believe isn’t a musical.

Would you want to move into directing?
Yeah, I asked [music-video director] Dave Meyers if I could intern for him. I was thinking about what my hobby should be, like outside of music, because I guess music is like my job now. I need a hobby.

At one point you tweeted that Ctrl would be your last album, do you still feel that way?
I don’t know. For now, this is my job. I just need something outside of this that steadies my brain. Right now I’m on two pegs and I’m cool, but if I had a third, I’d really be in the game. Like hella balanced.

The song “Weekend” has an honestly genius idea of time-sharing a man. Where did that come from?
Time-sharing a man is real AF. If we’re all being honest there’s very few men that are just dating one woman. I think, low-key, the internet makes it so difficult [to be in relationships] because we’re taking in so much information. There’s always new, new, new, more, more, more. Having one person seems like a restriction, like a limitation. Everyone’s used to being overstimulated.

I feel like men kind of do this thing where they don’t wanna tell anyone about [who they’re with], because they don’t want to lose the opportunity to potentially call you if they needed to. Not saying that they would, but they need the option. So in that song, I’m opting in. Like, I know you have a bunch of girls, probably. Maybe you’re not being honest with me — I just know that you have mad girls — and I still don’t care, because I didn’t want to be your girlfriend anyway! I’m not internalizing the way that you’re acting as a disrespect towards me, it doesn’t make me any less because you’re not my boyfriend. And like, you’re not her boyfriend, and you’re not her boyfriend. You’re just out here wildin’.

A few times in the album you apologize, or ask someone to excuse you for not shaving your legs. They’re small recurring moments, but so visual and vivid.
I don’t shave my legs! It’s just … I can’t. That just came from factual life. I never, ever do it. I think it’s bizarre to shave them. But, if I really like you, and like, you touch my legs, maybe I want to be kind of smooth for you.

Body hair has become such a conversation in mainstream feminism and presentation, I like that openness. It speaks to the little ways we change ourselves that our partners don’t even notice.
Right, someone can be like “Babe, you don’t do dadadada? What’s wrong with you?” And I’m like, “What? You just learned what a Beauty Blender was this year.” It makes no sense. How are you judging me?

I also really love the line in “Garden”: “Lie to me and say my booty gettin’ bigger even if it ain’t.” Can you talk to me about that feeling?
My body is ever-changing. My weight is hella fluctuating all the time — I think I just grew hips, like, randomly. I never had hips my whole life! Now, they’re kind of coming in. But now, I’m more focused on how do I look my best? What does it mean when I look my best? Sometimes what that means is asking if I’ve had enough water, if I’ve washed my face, if my skin is clear, if I’ve cared about myself. The practice of self-love is powerful.

This is your formal debut. How do you expect the industry to respond your music, to receive Ctrl?
I have no idea how people will receive me, and that’s kind of exciting and kind of terrifying. I think you have to focus on just getting your ideas out. I think the question is really “Did you accomplish what you wanted to?” I think I have a few accomplishments on that, I crossed off personal goals that I wanted sonically. Now I’m like, “Okay, well, at least if they don’t like it, I do really like that song.”

What were those goals?
“Supermodel” is a personal goal. I wanted to just do like a stream-of-consciousness song from the top, to just freestyle something that flowed out of my body. With “Doves in the Wind,” I wanted to talk shit. When I heard that beat, the first thing I thought of was like, “Yo.” Same thing with “Drew Barrymore.” We wanted something bold, brown, grunge — 1990s films, sad scenes, and thoughts.

What’s your favorite Drew Barrymore movie?
Either Poison Ivy or Never Been Kissed. When I was watching Never Been Kissed … that’s my experience. I was hella outcast in school. I was watching it like, “Yes! Win for all of us!”

How do you see TDE’s sound or aesthetic?
We’re all so different, and maybe I say that because I know everybody personally. We all approach music in like this weird way. Everybody’s honest. Everybody chases the instruments and the sounds that they’re stimulated by.

Can you talk to me a little bit about Ctrl’s delay? How did you work through that frustration?
Oh, man. That shit must have been cosmic. The amount of delays were just unreal, and so I figured that there must be a reason, because it was out of my control. But when it was time, then I felt like I didn’t have enough time — like “Oh, shit! Okay.”

When you’re making the album, it’s about getting all these things ready and prepared to turn in. You expect them to maybe get a little bit better, or get settled and be refined and polished. Like, you want to change them to make them better before it’s all said and done. That’s the dream, but the process is different. There was so much of me thinking, “Is it over? Should I try some more?” There’s been like three different albums, three completely different versions of this album over the span of the last three years. I did like a whole boom-bap phase. Then I wanted to make all trap everything. Then I wanted all organic everything.

Wow.
I think the delays were, like, coming in and out of me being lost in the album, so I didn’t notice them as much. The outside people made me feel like, “Oh, shit, I’m taking too long.” I didn’t even realize I’d been gone this long. Only when I was ready, [laughs] only when it was really time, and I wanted it to come out and they were like, “Well, I think we’re gonna get signed. I think we’re gonna wait!” was I like, “Oh my god! My album’s never gonna come out. This is crazy!”

I just got so nervous because I felt like my album was just this imaginary thing. I didn’t think about having to turn it into anyone, that anyone would have to hear it. Because if I think about turning it into a label then I have to wonder “Did they like it? What’d they think of me?” A lot of worry, and I don’t know, delays are gifts. I’ll take them. Every time.

Are you grateful for this journey, delays and all?
I am! I think I needed everything. Whatever happened, I needed. I needed to wait, and sit in situations. I’m super impatient so I think a lot of things being out of my control was a necessary lesson for me. Sometimes it felt like, “Okay, if I can’t put this out, I’ll shoot a video, write a treatment, design some merch, produce some merch! How can I expand on my vision?” You don’t always have to rush. You can always just grow.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

SZA on the Long Road to Her Debut Album, Ctrl