SZA and Me: On Losing Ctrl

SZA was recommended to me by a male friend in an offhand WhatsApp conversation.  A cursory Google reveals revealed that the artist is signed to Top Dawg Entertainment, home of my favourite boys Kendrick Lamar and Isaiah Rashad under the presidency of long term inspiration (and undying crush) of mine, Dave Free. I key SZA into Spotify and wait for a new male voice to get all up in my head space. But wait, I gasp: SZA IS A WOMAN. And. She. Is. Everything. I’ve. Been. Waiting. For.

Ctrl, SZA’s debut album, is a beacon of raging, confused, joyous femininity and it has been a total revelation for me. Every comment SZA (real name Solana Imani Rowe) makes on the knotty realities of womanhood rings with a specificity that all of us in our late twenties will recognise. If you don’t, you’ve either been VERY romantically fortunate or you’re scared to admit how close to home this album actually is. This is a body of work which captures, perfectly, the ‘old enough to know better, too young to care’ essence of those years between 25 and 30. 

While listening for the first time it dawned on me: this is the first time I’ve related to a voice of my own generation. I happily cite TLC  as one of the greatest bands ever, but what did 7 year old Tutku think ‘No Scrubs’ meant in 1999? The untimely death of my three favourites - Lisa Lopes, Aaliyah and Amy Winehouse - means that while I always loved their music, by the time I got it the music was all I had and the lessons I’d started to learn from these women would never be completed. 

Growing up on a diet of Toni Braxton, Lauryn Hill and Mya is a brilliant thing, but listening to them now, I feel a disconnect: while their work speaks to my heart, it doesn’t speak to my world. They don’t exist in the realm of the DM slide or Tinder (or the internet in general). Their lives seem clearer cut in some way. When I listen to ‘Bills’ by Destiny’s Child now all I can think about is how the economy has crashed and I live at home. The currentness of SZA is sweet relief. There’s a uniqueness to the times we’re living in that SZA understands and weaves into each track. When she chimes ‘start the Narcos off at episode one’ I’m disarmed. For maybe the first time, I recognise the voice in my head phones, and the world that voice inhabits. 

More than that, I recognise myself. Listening to Ctrl is like being left alone in front of mirror under stage lights. The opening track ‘Supermodel’ begins with the admission that her greatest fear is loss of control. In the space of those first ten words the vitality of this album is made clear. Aren’t we all totally scared of losing our grip? Isn’t that innate fear of losing control the bed-rock of so many modern mental health problems? And doesn’t that opening line cut straight to the core of what so many of us fail to express in a lifetime, let alone in an introduction? 

These aren't an average set of songs about relationships. They form a candid, relatable account of womanhood that contains multitudinous contradictions. Given that the opening features the admission ‘I’ve been banging your best friend’  (a pro act of revenge) it’s easy to presume SZA is actually in control, but then the rage winds down and she admits ‘I need you, I need you, I need you.’ Moments of defiance float in a sea of lust and longing for male attention.

It’s that precise shift from antagonised and vengeful to lonely and vulnerable that makes her more than a singer. She’s a woman with whom I’d like to sink a bottle of Henny and talk into the night because the truth is: even if I can be strong & self-satisfying all the time, maybe I don’t want to be. Maybe I need love. Shit. Maybe I need a man. SZA lays so much blunt truth down track after track that she makes it easy for me to have this conversation with myself and, trust me, it’s one I otherwise avoid. 

My favourite track on the album, ’Drew Barrymore’, arrives with the achingly resonant opening line “why’s it so hard to accept the party is over?” This line plays into the thing about myself I understand the least: some days the loves I let into my life are disposable to me - I swiped them in, I can swipe them back out again - and other days I. Cannot. Let. Them. Go. I’m a woman who either thinks about things until they’re inside-out and back-to-front, or who acts so impulsively it’s difficult to work out what even happened. But why can’t I admit it? Why do I treat something that has probably been blindingly obvious to everyone around me since forever as some big secret? It comes back to that opening line: I don’t want to admit I’m not in control. 

This is an album for those of us who feel fleeky and flawed in the space of five minutes, and are ready to admit that it’s hard out here. Even when she’s dealing in self-delusion, on Ctrl SZA is nothing but radically and brutally honest. I punch the air every time I hear the lines ‘'I get so lonely I forget what I'm worth / We get so lonely we pretend that this works’, because it’s the truest thing I’ve ever heard. In admitting how conflicted, confused, and contradictory she is, her words bring solace. I’ve done a lot of very strange and conflicting things due to whatever end of the scale my self-worth is lurking at, but I’m not the only one. This middle finger to suffering in silence is a proud and necessary invitation for me to do me, and for you to do you without apology.  

Follow Tutku on Twitter at @tutkubarbaros