Trying to Regain ‘Ctrl,’ Five Years Later

On the comfort and letdown of SZA’s deluxe edition of her debut studio album

On June 9, 2022

SZA told Vogue last year, “I use the anniversary of Ctrl as an opportunity to cry and reflect every year.” This time, to celebrate the undeniable album turning five, she’s opted to cry, reflect and release a deluxe version of the record, with seven previously unreleased tracks. According to a tweet from the artist, the new songs — including an alternative version of “Love Galore” — were all made between 2014 and 2017.

The reprise of “Love Galore” doesn’t distinguish itself much from the original until verse three, where instead of Travis Scott, we get a new verse from SZA. The swap leaves the song feeling one-sided and unanswered, while the original duet countered SZA’s lyrical perspective with Scott’s (“Last time I checked, you were the one that left me in a wreck / Me in a mess”). “2AM” — released on SoundCloud 2016 — flips the point of view on PARTYNEXTDOOR and Drake’s “Come and See Me,” but leans on repetition instead of the sharp lyrical specificity SZA is known for. “Miles” and “Percolator,” both clocking in close to the minute mark, function more like interludes than new songs. 

“Tread Carefully” and “Awkward” are the only new tracks that really shine and feel on par with the original tracklist. The former has her trademark level of detail and honesty: “Tread carefully, no bra / Tread carefully, no panties / I tread carefully ’til I’m on top of you … I can’t front, I want you / bad as you want me, too.” The latter has a slightly different inflection than the rest of the record, and is a nice callback to Z-era SZA vocals.

There’s a level of comfort to this deluxe edition: returning to the pre-pandemic world of Ctrl has a cozy nostalgia to it. When playing the record over and over in 2017, I, like many others, wished it had a longer runtime. But the context is different now, and this window into the past isn’t revelatory — the space created by SZA for blunt vulnerability has been filled in her hiatus by impeccable projects from R&B stars like Jazmine Sullivan, among others. SZA has released singles here and there, like “Good Days,” “I Hate U” and notable recent collaborations with Kali Uchis, Doja Cat and Summer Walker — and Ctrl has never left the Billboard charts. But these seven tracks, fun as they are for SZA fans who’ve been clamoring for them, aren’t a level up. They’re a stopgap, a stand-in for what’s required: A new concept for the singular artist to explore.

Where is our reckoning from a fame-changed SZA? It’s been a half-decade since she told Pitchfork she was “literally still shook” over the response to Ctrl, five years since she was the direct, sensitive artist who said: “Some people couldn’t handle ‘The Weekend,’ or ‘Supermodel.’ Conceptually, it’s still taboo. I’m just like, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why is this weird to you, that everyone fucks, everyone gets sad, everyone wishes they made better decisions, everyone wishes they had more control?’”

Aside from changes driven by success, SZA’s been outspoken about her prioritization of health and personal growth in the years since Ctrl; she spoke with Rolling Stone in 2020 about turning to exercise and meditation in her “journey out of this dark-ass depression” following her grandmother’s death. She said then, “I’ve buried so many people in my life, you would think that I would be used to it, or just have a threshold. But my grandma broke the threshold for me. It was so weird to not have any… I don’t know, any control over anything.”

Earlier this year, she told Variety that her new album is finished and on the way soon; hopefully that means this is the summer SZA returns, in control, with something new to say. 

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Theda Berry

Theda Berry is a Brooklyn-based writer and the Assistant Editor of VMP. If she had to be a different kind of berry, she’d pick strawberry.

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