The album was too loud. That was the biggest problem Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had when recording Janet Jackson’s 1986 Control.
“Working with Prince, we would always watch the way he would record,” Jimmy Jam told ESSENCE. “And the machines were always in the red- meaning that he was recording too loud, but that was the way he got the sound. We ended up recording everything too loud because our machines [that we used for Janet] were already set up to record that way, so we were recording our stuff doubly loud. We didn’t realize it until we started mixing and our engineer came in and said, ‘Who recorded this?!”
The amplified sound was a foreshadowing for what the album would mean for Jackson’s music career. Prior to Control, Janet was the well-known baby girl of the Jackson clan. She had flourished as a television actress and recorded two notable albums, but hadn’t taken music seriously. In her personal and professional life, things were changing —she had just annulled her marriage to James DeBarge and hired a new manager, relieving her father of his typical business obligations.
Naturally, in the summer of 1985, when she left her family home in Los Angeles to record with Jam and Lewis in Minneapolis, she was ready to do something loud, brave and unexpected. Control was her resounding declaration.
“The idea for us was to take her out of her comfort zone,” Jam said. “When we started working we didn’t record for the first 4 or 5 days. We would go to the studio and just kind of hang out. She was going through a lot of things in her life. And she finally said, ‘Well when are we going to start working?’ And we said ‘We’ve already started working and we showed her the lyrics that we had started for Control, and she was like, ‘This is what we’ve been talking about.’”
“The albums that she did before —she had no input in them. It was basically just like someone would give her a song and she would sing it. That was never our philosophy for making records.”
If the album’s title doesn’t give away the theme, Control’s opening statement says it all: “This is a story about control, my control, control over what I say, control over what I do, and this time I’m going to do it my way.” Hits like “Nasty”, “What Have You Done For Me Lately”, and “Pleasure Principle” reinforced the theme by showcasing a woman, who demanded respect in her relationships and in her work and was willing to get that respect by taking as much personal control as necessary.
Thirty years later, women musicians are still talking about control. While Jackson’s 1986 album is about gaining control, SZA’s 2017 CTRL is about releasing control.
“I wanted to control the way people thought of me… saw me,” SZA told The Cruz Show. “I wanted to control the way life was going, controlling the pitfalls or the pain… Trying to control the pain influx… And it’s just not possible. You can’t control the way other people feel. You can’t control the way they react. And once you lose enough, you allow yourself the space to relinquish control.”
As a result, many of the songs on CTRL feel circular or open-ended. She’s doesn’t commit to a conclusive thesis or hook, but instead questions, prods, reasons and feels her way through old relationships and experiences, channeling the tug-of-war that becomes inevitable when a person who’s accustomed to or comfortable with being in control must give it up.
On “Go Gina”, she sings about a woman who’s learning, or perhaps needs to learn, how to let go. The song is a play on the character Gina from the show Martin, who SZA says is beautiful with a sense of humor, but kind of uptight and “If she lived like Pam she might have more fun.” Like most of the album, the song is biographical, based on her feelings about a past relationship. “I never really talked about relationships in a direct way. I used to be very metaphorical, very figurative,” SZA said. “And also just kind of scared to talk about the way I felt in a literal way or very directly.”
That vulnerability is paying off. CTRL has put SZA on the hearts, ears and eyes of R&B and pop fans across the world and has forced her industry peers to recognize her as an indomitable singer-songwriter. It has also earned her five Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist and Best Urban Contemporary Album. Similar to how Control re-introduced Janet to the world and put her in the same conversation as her big brother Michael, CTRL is SZA’s breakthrough moment.
“There are other women’s albums that I really enjoyed this year, but her album is probably the best album of the year, and I think she’s absolutely amazing.” Jam told ESSENCE. “I’ve always loved her writing style anyway.”
And SZA’s writing style is loveable, if not remarkable.
While she doesn’t waste any space being delicate or inexplicit, she still manages to be stylish and emotive. On the album’s most fearless track “Supermodel”, she chases her feelings through a game of cat and mouse, as she admonishes a lover for replacing her with prettier women, sleeps with his homeboy, makes a plea for his validation —before reconciling that she could be free from this tormenting game if she could just learn how to be okay with herself. It’s a bare composition that synthesizes the emotional negotiation in a love-hate relationship between a woman and her lover, and a woman and herself.
On “The Weekend”, she goes through a similar negotiation. The first verse acknowledges the recklessness of dealing with a guy who is with someone else; she even calls it selfish and desperate, but by the chorus, she is back in control, flipping the narrative of a wounded girl buried in second position, to a satisfied part-time girlfriend with benefits. It’s a provocative, albeit logical proposition when considered within the context of abandoning control.
Like her content, SZA’s approach to music-making is equally concerned with releasing control, “I’m making things that feel good, trying to connect to the part of me that doesn’t think as much,” she said, “Trying to focus on honesty, living with honesty. I’m trying to figure myself out through my music, which is taking so long.”
No matter how long it takes, we have a feeling the world will be listening.