sza’s honesty about her insecurities on ‘ctrl’ is a powerful lesson on vulnerability

June 15, 2017

Since SZA’s debut studio album Ctrl dropped last week, I haven’t stopped listening to it. My roommate has warned me I’m going to wear the damn thing out, and I know it’s true, but what can I say? Ctrl speaks to me, and speaks aloud so much of what I may have been afraid to say myself. With each listen, I find myself unraveling within a new layer of love, loss and longing that I’m not quite sure I have reckoned with, but that I am happy to be compelled to.

I am exactly the twenty-something the St. Louis-born, Jersey-based alternative RnB singer croons about on the final track, “20 Something”, “hoping my twenty somethings don’t end / hoping to keep the rest of my friends.” The stripped down song is a fitting end to the album that delves so deeply and beautifully into the world of young millennials who struggle with their sexuality, to find comfort in their own skin, booties and bodies, and to find self-worth in the hyper-connected world of social media that still manages to leave one feeling so lonely, so often.

By Hari Ziyad*, AFROPUNK Writer

For a non-twenty something, the album might have a different resonance, but the alternative RnB star seems to be okay with this. As she stated at the AFROPUNK listening party for Ctrl, her mission with writing it was to “tell the truth,” and this is her truth today, a vulnerable, sexual, messy truth like so many of ours in her generation, even when we don’t want to admit it.

On “Normal Girl”, SZA accepts she never will be one, but still wishes she was “the type of girl, I know my daddy, he’d be proud of,” a line which takes on even deeper meaning considering how she was raised as an orthodox Muslim and has since evolved into the sex-positive starlet she is today out from the strict conservatism that may have led to a past homophobic tweet. In her apology for that incident, she admits to “hating everyone and everything (at 19), just as I thought god hated me”:

It’s the type of evolution you know is necessary, but the chasm it creates between your current and old life still remains so painful––something many of us who grew up in conservative households know all too well.

On “Drew Barrymore”, “Love Galore” and “Broken Clocks”, SZA opens up about the difficulty of overcoming romantic relationships, vacillating between genuine feelings of love and vengeful anger, an anger she enacts in the opening track, “Supermodel”, by “secretly banging (her lover’s) homeboy.” The singer questions fidelity and the borderlines of a relationship even further in the controversial track, “The Weekend,” a song another twenty-something friend told me was “his life,” and in which she admits to being okay with sharing a partner with other women, knowing at least he is hers on the weekend.

Most of the songs speak to struggling through singledom and situationships, but my favorite track, “Garden (Say It Like Dat)”, lays the difficult truth bare that even genuine love isn’t all rainbows and sunshine, acknowledging the imposter-syndrome-like feeling of always being afraid your partner will discover you’re a fraud. As a newly partnered queer boy who just months ago accepted I’d never fall in love again, the song just gets more and more real with every listen.

The features on the album, Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, James Fauntleroy and Isaiah Rashad, appropriately play like supporting cast to the SZA story, adding just the right amount of perspective without taking away from the vulnerable journey. And it’s been a long journey from the production-heavy offerings of the artist’s past that obscured her strong vocals into whispery, more muted experiences. Ctrl is raw, and in it her voice is front and center, a “fuck it” to the fear that may have kept it muted before, a fear that nearly caused her to quit music altogether, and is the power behind so much of the album’s content. It’s a fear her mother speaks to at the beginning of the opening track, explaining “That is my greatest fear, that if, if I lost control, or did not have control, things would just, you know, I would be… fatal.” But SZA loses it anyway, because sometimes the truth is worth it.

Stream Ctrl on Spotify below:

Banner photo via Sidewalk Hustle

*Hari Ziyad is a New York based storyteller and writer for AFROPUNK. They are also the editor-in-chief of RaceBaitR, deputy editor of Black Youth Project, and assistant editor of Vinyl Poetry & Prose. You can follow them on Twitter @hariziyad.