With ‘Ctrl,’ Sza is in the midst of a breakout year

Sza is in the midst of a breakout year with “Ctrl,” a fierce album about sexual freedom, black womanhood and identity. Is Grammy gold next?
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times )

Sza should have been celebrating. It was the day after her sold-out tour played downtown at the Novo, and she had just learned that her breakout single, “Love Galore,” had gone platinum — yet she was agonizing over the concert.

“This is the second time I’ve had a really bad show … I was certain that I was gonna have an amazing show, and I’ve never been that certain,” the 26-year-old sighed, sitting cross-legged at Runyon Canyon on a recent afternoon.

A nature enthusiast, Sza often walks these winding trails with her 3-year-old French bulldog, Piglet, but this day, she was unwinding on a slab of concrete overlooking a busy dog park.


She was upset over the show, which had had a few technical snafus — minor ones, like her in-ear monitors going in and out. The glitches went unnoticed by an audience that had moved to her every whim, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she had “failed in front of a lot of people.”

It will take more than one glitchy show to slow down the singer-songwriter born Solána Rowe, although this drive for perfection has often impeded her young career.

“It was the worst-case scenario,” she said. “The whole thing was off. But I’m trying to become more malleable. Experiences like that help me toughen up.”

Rowe is in the midst of a breakout year with “Ctrl,” her fierce debut album that explores love, sex, black womanhood and identity with a bluntness typically reserved for gossip sessions with friends.

Released in June, “Ctrl” hit a vein — particularly among young black women. It topped the R&B albums chart (the third album by a woman to do so this year) and recently went gold.

Her songs have scored HBO’s hit series “Insecure,” Lorde and Maroon 5 have tapped her for collaborations and Beyoncé and Solange are among her biggest fans. Then there’s the Grammys — expect to see her nominated for new artist award.


This time last year, however, Rowe was ready to hang it up.

“I actually quit,” she tweeted last October, adding, Top Dawg Entertainment Co-President Terrence “Punch” Henderson “can release my album if he ever feels like it. Y’all be blessed.”

The cryptic dispatch was quickly deleted, but her fans and the media noticed. Sza is a fierce self-critic, and it was one of many moments of self-doubt that curbed the singer — and threatened “Ctrl.”

“I’m a Scorpio with a Pisces moon. I am very critical of myself. I’m actually way less critical of others than I am of myself,” she said. “I’m in my own head a lot. It’s hard and really discouraging.”

"I have a short attention span. If you put me in the studio every day, I’m gonna get lost," Sza says of the anxieties that affected the recording of her debut album, "Ctrl."
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times )

An accidental singer

Rowe was born in St. Louis and raised an Orthodox Muslim in Maplewood, N.J. (she was aggressively taunted in school after 9/11); her stage name, pronounced like “scissor,” was inspired by Nation of Islam teachings.

She had a strict childhood — television and radio were forbidden — and Rowe didn’t grow up with dreams of singing. Instead, she focused on the Olympics, training as a gymnast for 13 years.

At gymnastics camp, she got her first taste of music outside the classical jazz her father preferred when she found an iPod loaded with Björk, Jay-Z, Common, Wu-Tang Clan, Nas and Outkast.

After dropping out of college (she cycled through four schools, studying marine biology) and burning through a string of odd jobs, she started recording at the insistence of a friend.

In 2011, Rowe met Top Dawg Entertainment’s Henderson at a showcase for a then-rising Kendrick Lamar. She was working for a streetwear brand and was handing out merchandise. Henderson overheard the music she had written and recorded with her brother Daniel, who raps under the name Mnhattn, and the two struck up a rapport.

It was only after she self-released 2012’s “See.Sza.Run” and “S” the following year that Rowe signed with TDE, making her the first female performer on the L.A. hip-hop indie that launched Lamar, Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul.

“What caught my attention was her approach to how she writes songs,” Henderson said. “She approaches them as a lyricist — how she puts words and metaphors together. But then there’s her voice, it’s so distinctive.”

“Z,” her 2014 EP released through TDE, earned the singer buzz for its chilly vibes and her sultry rasp. Before the year was over, Rowe was playing festivals and writing for Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj.

Things only took off from there. Rihanna enlisted Sza to write and sing on her latest album, “Anti”; she toured with Jhené AIko; and RCA teamed with TDE, having seen how the indie steered Lamar to rap stardom, to release her debut album.

But as Rowe’s star rose, so did her anxiety and self-doubt. And her fears began to affect work on her album.

I don’t have a background in music … and I have a short attention span. If you put me in the studio every day, I’m gonna get lost.

— Sza

“I don’t have a background in music … and I have a short attention span. If you put me in the studio every day, I’m gonna get lost,” she said. “It’s hard to keep going when you bore yourself. My anxiety dragged [the process] on like two extra years.”

Frustration — mostly with herself — and weariness from the pressure she put on herself to deliver to her label and her growing following pushed Rowe to the brink of quitting (and that Twitter missive).

“I was signed, and now it’s like, ‘Oh no. I have to turn in something.’ My sounds are … worth money,” she said between drags on a joint.

“I was scared. I’ve never sold anything before. Why can’t I just be like Chance [the Rapper, who eschews commercially releasing his music]?”

After more than two years of delays, Sza had amassed upward of 200 songs for the album. She prefers to freestyle her lyrics over writing them down — “The pen just does not move as fast as my thoughts,” she said — and the process led to near constant revision from the singer.

The label intervened, Rowe said, snatching her hard drive and culling what ultimately became “Ctrl.” If it hadn’t happened, she’d still be tinkering in the studio

“[The album] was probably way better like a year and a half ago,” she said. “I sat on it too long and … [messed] it up. I didn’t make a 10 out of 10 album, and I knew I didn’t when I dropped, but I didn’t have any more time to go back in on it.”

Fans and critics disagreed. “Ctrl,” like her earlier work, is aching, brazen and teeming with unflinching honesty: “Let me tell you a secret / I been secretly banging your homeboy,” she confesses on the album’s opening track.

Unlike earlier work that saw her voice shrink behind atmospheric beats and esoteric lyrics, Rowe emerges as an unabashed storyteller on “Ctrl,” as she candidly details her insecurities and anxieties. “I get so lonely, I forget what I’m worth,” she riffs on the album’s first single, “Drew Barrymore.”

Self-doubt and uncertainty are explored with as much depth as lust and loneliness. She sings of her desire to be a “Normal Girl,” ruminates on aging on “Prom” and navigates a shared lover on standout “The Weekend,” a record that sparked a rather intense Twitter debate on gender politics.

“The things she’s saying is what a lot of people are thinking but are scared, or even embarrassed, to say,” Henderson said. “People connect to honesty. And she’s 100% honest.”

RCA Chairman Peter Edge echoed Henderson’s sentiment. “[Rowe] made a coherent statement,” he said. “She is a woman of color who has a viewpoint that is not being heard everywhere, and therefore, what she’s saying really stands out in today’s musical landscape.”

Sza ponders her next move.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times )

I wasn’t expecting people were going to show a ... lot of attention. Every moment, I’m shocked.

— SZA on her breakout album, ‘Ctrl’

She sings of self-esteem, toxic relationships, twentysomething angst and sexual freedom over dreamy productions that weave R&B, hip-hop, electronic and indie rock textures.

“People grapple with labeling me as hip-hop, R&B or pop, and it’s interesting to me. I’m just making music,” she said. “I listen to Stevie Nicks. I love classical jazz. I love folk. I love rap. I love Modest Mouse. I’m making an album with Tame Impala and Mark Ronson. When you try to label it, you remove the option for it to be limitless. It diminishes the music.”

Rowe is still in disbelief over the attention her music has received this year. Miguel and Khalid went viral with covers of her songs, her headlining tour sold out in minutes and she’s joining Bryson Tiller on a European tour, Solange is set to direct her next video and a deluxe edition of “Ctrl” is in the works.

“I wasn’t expecting people were going to show a … lot of attention,” she said. “Every moment, I’m shocked. It’s taught me a lesson on energy and expectation. The biggest songs on the album — ‘Love Galore,’ ‘The Weekend,’ ‘Supermodel,’ ‘Broken Clocks’ — are the easiest songs I’ve ever made. Just free-flowing energy, and not me resisting.”

As Rowe trotted onstage at the Novo hours before her show, she was trailed not by a parade of handlers but by her dog, which scurried off the stage when the boom of the kick drum started up for “Go Gina.”

She was rehearsing the song while texting with Lamar over plans to surprise the audience with a performance of “Doves in the Wind,” her brazen ode to vaginas, when a moment of doubt washed over her. “My nerves are crazy,” she sighed.

“I worry so much. Like, ‘Damn, how can I be excellent?’ But it’s a journey,” she said. “I have to decide what’s excellent to me. Because I’m so stressed out, I have so many words. The next album is going to be the best I ever made in my life.”

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