Why is it so hard to accept the party is over?”, Solána Imani Rowe, better known as SZA, scorns after four bars of gorgeous languid chorus guitars. This is what only the greatest songwriters do: pull you into this very specific scenery in a matter of seconds. In this case, it takes just a single great lyric. This particular scenery is one of loneliness; the aftermath of a relationship, and the difficulty of accepting two strong conflicting forces, change and affection. You can almost picture SZA tossing out half-eaten tacos, cleaning dishes, emptying ashtrays, as Wagner Moura’s Pablo Escobar threatens law enforcement to choose between silver and lead behind a flickering TV screen.

The rigid binaries of modern life can feel like a similarly crude ultimatum. In a combination of restlessness and ennui, people are swiping would-be dates left or right, and skipping songs to get one that syncs directly with their incumbent state. Objectifying image and sound is becoming our daily custom, and with it maybe even the people behind those images and sounds. Anything less than instant gratification means instant termination.

Once that initial thrill hits, we become more and more wired to move on to the next thing. Relationships can feel like a similar plight, a desperate clasp for control, using distance to preemptively repel ourselves from any impending disappointment or pain. SZA’s CTRL is, perhaps unintentionally, clawing against that dark void within us. In the album’s nocturnal, desolate purgatory, SZA’s voice bursts through a narrow seam like a ray of light. Now a year after its release on RCA Records, CTRL is still very much present within the day-to-day discourse. In times where our attention spans are increasingly geared towards what’s coming over what’s been, that’s pretty impressive.

Of course, SZA’s own diligence plays a big part in that. Back in February, she stood alongside Kendrick Lamar in Black Panther’s flagship song ‘All The Stars’. Recently, she appeared on ‘I Do’, the incandescent album closer of Cardi B’s Invasion Of Privacy. And the meantime, she keeps churning out striking videos: ‘Broken Clocks’ takes us to the idyllic mirage of the fictional Camp Ctrl before delivering an emotional gut punch. The one for ‘Garden (Say It Like Dat’), co-starring Donald Glover, accordingly paints a utopian Biblical setting.

SZA’s command of imagery might be as incisive as her command of voice and sound. The album cover of CTRL is kind of a hoot: we see her posing with a messy scrap heap of old computer screens, ready to be taken to the junkyard. It collocates strikingly with the CTRL title, the notion that a single button press equals a quick fix prescription, much less signifying a specific mood. It’s a quirky and playful little warning sign (along with your requisite Parental Advisory stamp) that SZA isn’t about to wrap things up neatly with a bow. Order isn’t breaking this slump… but a little chaos just might.

Between the moonstricken neo-R&B backdrop of CTRL, SZA’s voice serves an instrument of chaos. Not the screaming punk rock kind of chaos, but more akin to pack of birds forming a living cloud, deftly swerving between stark urban structures. Her voice doesn’t seem strictly conditioned in its virtuosity, like so many singers who tried to follow the footsteps of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston back in the '90s. Even though it travels many directions, her singing feels like a disembodied force that can penetrate anything. On ‘Supermodel’, SZA powerfully asserts: "I could be your supermodel/If you believe you see it in me/see it in me/see it in me," the last three stanzas fired straight into the ticker like cupid’s arrows. It’s impossible not to be moved.

Listening to CTRL, I often imagine SZA’s voice being replaced by a saxophone. It’s an equally dynamic force, if not even more so. Take the next cut ‘Love Galore’, she belts out the first word with otherworldly conviction, trying to reach the pixelated, autotune delivery of her indifferent co-star, played by Travis Scott. Again, breaking through those rigid binaries, into the physical plane, in the hope the other party will show up too. On ‘Normal Girl’ she asserts "You like it when I be aggressive," essentially dismissing her sexual desires as something to submit to; she instead weaponizes them as restorative powers.

There’s a lot of explicitness in CTRL: you could almost assume that physical, plainspoken element in the lyrics is present out of sheer necessity to make that definitive connection. Being clever or ironic just doesn’t cut it. As opposed to sly sweet nothings or archaic innuendos like ‘Making Whoopee’ – a song once sung by one of SZA’s vital touchstones, Ella Fitzgerald – CTRL’s lyrical imagery is dirty in nature. In the outro she sings the words "lovin’ ‘n licky," which merges platonic love and bodily love into a single gesture, giving depth and intention to what would otherwise be considered a skin-deep search for cheap thrills. It’s an incredible play of words, both blunt and complex.

CTRL shows the listener not just tip of the proverbial iceberg, but the cavernous debris hidden below the surface with it. It’s a record that incites deeper exploration like few pop records do these days. Instead of forging a microcosm of something profound, nod politely and take a bow, SZA freestyles with sprawling abandon. The stumbling along the way is part of its grace, as is its fortitude to break the listener’s defense mechanisms. Not like some benevolent deity becoming emblematic to something, but like real person reflecting on her own quandaries, desires and flaws to the minutiae.

The whole album plays almost like a movie where all the interactions after the cuts have made it in. The language is of the everyday kitchen sink variety, yet holds complex tangents of references and perspectives for those willing to dig deeper. Even the CTRL’s small understated interludes, like the classical strings of ‘Go Gina’, feel monumental and weighty. Conversely, the snippets of phone conversation between her and her mom take you to a more grounded, personal space.

Stylistically speaking, CTRL touches base with so many things, you just can’t speak of a sum of parts that can simply be broken down and domesticated again. This record is more like an elemental realm you can revisit and rediscover with each listen. A trait only the classic albums possess, like Radiohead’s OK Computer twenty years prior, or heck, Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life forty years prior. To quote the latter: love is always in need of love: today, nine-to-five or through the weekend. And fittingly, ‘The Weekend’s faint background choir soothes in similar fashion as on Wonder’s classic opening cut. The gist of it all remains the same through time and space.

As a testimony to these current times, CTRL offers a fragmented, inverse look on alienation of the self. But instead of wallowing in angst, it comes with a promise to try even harder to communicate and overcome. SZA laments on the lysergic ‘Prom’ whether she’s doing enough to keep her most inner circle of confidants happy, and how that mirrors her own self-esteem. With her profile rising at a crazy pace now, these questions will undoubtedly become more and more fickle.

No matter where SZA goes from here – even in light of recent reports of permanent vocal damage – it’ll be worth the wait. CTRL has already proven to be a record made for the long haul: let’s hope its maker finds strength in it as well, even if she might not be able to perform the music for an unforeseen period of time. As a former gymnast, SZA probably knows a thing or two about taking risks and finding new resolve after the fall. Those touched by her music can now relate and feel emboldened to counter these setbacks – regardless of demographic, gender, race or belief system.

The emotional torrents (“Right now I feel it pouring”), and yeah, even the feigned, sarcastic quips (“I’m so glad you could come by”) are expressions to cope with tough situations: the kind of blemished thoughts she keeps delivering with such persistent conviction. Sticking the landing isn’t as important as making the jump, and having no Grammy Award to show for CTRL – though criminally indefensible – might not matter either. The deepest sense of validation comes from within. With CTRL permanently out there in this fractured world, SZA will never have to feign a smile again.