Blog Post Week 4: Afrofuturistic Themes in SZA’s “Ctrl”

In 2017, R&B singer Solána Rowe, better known as SZA, released her first full length studio album titled “Ctrl”, released three years following the debut of her first EP titled “Z”. The overall concept of “Ctrl” has to do with SZA’s stage in life, where she is trying to balance relationships as well as honesty with herself as a young woman. With SZA being a woman of color, her humbled and honest lyrics on many of the tracks resonated with her audience, especially with other women of color. Tracks such as “Supermodel”, “The Weekend” and “20 Something” feature her most sincere lyrics concerning love, hooking up, and asserting control within these relationships. Similarly, the theme of control, as evident by the title, is present in many of the other album tracks. For example, in the song “Broken Clocks” SZA talks about the struggles of having multiple 9-5 jobs, the effect they have on her relationships, and how to “keep up with the grind” with a positive attitude. This theme of a woman of color asserting her control not only within her relationships, but within herself and in other areas of her life, was deeply felt and envisaged by women of color.  This audience found these tracks to be almost anthemic and cumulative of the difficulties they often face as women of color, struggling for some sort of “control” and clarity in today’s unpredictably polarized society.

I feel that the underlying themes in SZA’s “Crtl” relate to the feminist branch of Afrofuturism. More specifically, these theme’s echo Shockley’s discussion on polyvocality: “When I refer to the “polyvocality” of a poem, I mean the extent to which its language, tone, diction, form, and other stylistic choices generate the effect of multiplicity in a single speaker’s voice or create space for a number of different speakers – an effect that runs counter to (or around) the predominant expectation for lyric poems to function as internally consistent, first-person utterances”.  While SZA’s lyrics are in the first-person tense and relate to her own life experiences, her tracks on “Ctrl” can represent polyvocality because they are inherently speaking to, and could be speaking for, an audience that often does not have as equal recognition as other audiences in mainstream pop culture. This audience (women of color) was essentially given a voice by SZA through her themes of feminist control and pride in being a woman of color, of which to be acknowledged and further integrated within the greater mainstream of pop culture. This is consistent with Shockley’s statements of how black female writers Brooks, Sanchez and Mullen made their voices heard through their writing, and how they in turn gave voices to women in similar intersections of race and gender to be recognized by the greater society.

“To survive and thrive, she submits, black women have had to learn to speak dialogically in ways that can be heard by our “others,” both through similarity and across difference. Responding creatively to the environments in which they write, particularly with respect to the ways they understand their audiences, Brooks, Sanchez, and Mullen exercise this skill by innovatively manipulating the formal elements of their poetry, so that the works might be heard differently by different listeners”.

By SZA crafting her meaningful lyrics with very eclectic and “vibey” R&B/hip hop production, and including features with well-known musical artists on certain tracks, she was able to reach a massive audience and generate widespread appeal to the album and its concepts, and as a result, women of color were given a voice to be heard by a greater number of listeners. While SZA is not the first black female artist to speak for such an audience, her work most definitely compliments and adds to the ever-growing, and inspiring musical discourse that deserves all of the attention it commands in today’s mainstream culture.

One Reply to “Blog Post Week 4: Afrofuturistic Themes in SZA’s “Ctrl””

  1. Productive and engaging thoughts here, Ryan. I think you’re stronger on interweaving “speak dialogically” than “polyvocality” though I’d have to go back and listen to Ctrl before being too insistent on that. But polyvocality involves a changing of registers, vocabularies and styles that can happen in R&B/hip-hop (we might look at sampling, feat. and vs.) but doesn’t necessarily govern SZA’s work in this case. Or, put better, you’re more interested in the connection to audience than the multiplicity of voice, and while that’s a hard thing to gage you’re able to show it in concert with the idea of “dialogically” although you’d need to also define and explain that somewhat. Still, plenty of ideas to keep going with here, and glad SZA is represented!

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