Udoka Nwansi/MiC.

Last year on the morning of my 19th birthday, I walked into a tattoo parlor in Ypsilanti with only one idea in my mind. I greeted my heavily pierced, tattoo-clad artist at his station with a small piece of paper containing my desired design. He looked up at me with a slightly amused smile, asking, “Just this?” The paper only read four simple letters: Ctrl. A simple design for a professional like himself yet such an emotionally packed word for me. I confirmed the design, and he began the process. While casually wiping off the mix of blood and ink that trickled down my wrist, he jokingly asked me what made Ctrl so extraordinary to the point that I wanted to have it permanently etched on my body. I laughed, before recounting to him the story of how I fell in love with this album.

When Ctrl was released in 2017, it wasn’t initially on my radar. I remember hearing “Love Galore,” the second single on the album, 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 syncopation that rapper Travis Scott adds to the song quickly made it a favorite for me. Still, I never bothered to listen to the project in full until a friend of mine had posted a raving review of the album on her Instagram page. On my first listen through the album, I was immediately impressed by the production’s brilliance. SZA’s ethereal vocals float over the electronic R&B instrumentals as she builds this world in which she is the main character, taking back 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 take on the neo-soul sound. The first time I listened, I couldn’t relate to much of the profoundly personal subject matter that SZA had relayed on the album. The topics of love, angst and sexuality were far too complicated for my 15-year-old self. However, I knew that I could admire a good album when I heard one. As I grew older and developed more complex feelings about myself and my interpersonal relationships, I came to appreciate Ctrl even more. 

The album feels almost like a sonic diary. There is a deep level of vulnerability on each and every song, which I think distinguishes Ctrl, her debut studio album, from her prior mixtape, Z. SZA dives even deeper with Ctrl, uncovering the uncomfortable truths about womanhood and facing them with a tone of boldness. She even goes as far as to include recordings from phone calls with her mother and late grandmother, which serve as interludes throughout the album. I find solace in songs like “Normal Girl,” which addresses fleeting feelings of inadequacy and estrangement. On the track, SZA longs for the normalcy that comes with being a girl who cleanly fits into societal standards. On the chorus, she wishes that she were just a “normal girl,” while simultaneously acknowledging that she will probably never adhere to the conventional guidelines of desirability. This song hits very close to home for me because, as a Black woman, I understand her as she impeccably articulates the feelings of frustration and insecurity that can arise at the intersection of these identities.

My favorite verse from “Normal Girl” is, “This time next year I’ll be living so good, won’t remember no pain, I swear.” I often find myself in fistfights with feelings of imposter syndrome. Whether it be 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 stick out like a sore thumb, I’m always trying to prove to myself that I am where I’m supposed to be. When I hear this line, it feels like words of reassurance to a future version of myself, a promise that these feelings of self-doubt will fade with time. While imposter syndrome will surely return to me at some point, this verse reminds me that no hardship will last forever. 

By the end of the brief session, I had talked my tattoo artist’s ear off with my full dissertation on the beauties of Ctrl. As I was leaving, he promised me that he would give it a listen. I look forward to following up with him when I go back to the parlor to get my tattoo touched up later this year. I hope he was able to hear at least a fraction of the artistry that I do whenever I listen to the album. Whether it’s sitting in my room, having a cathartic cry to “Supermodel” or driving in my car yelling the lyrics to “Drew Barrymore” with my closest friends, this album is a piece of art that carries me through the highs and lows in my life. I consider Ctrl an extension of my own thoughts — an album that puts the most inexplicable yet visceral emotions that I feel into words. The same melodies and lyrics that I’ve heard hundreds of times still resonate with me just as deeply every time. I’ve grown with this album and my experiences are permanently intertwined with its narrative. The tattoo that now lives on my wrist serves as a physical reminder of this.

MiC Columnist Udoka Nwansi can be reached at udoka@umich.edu.