Dear SZA stans, do not gasp but I was a late SZA fan. I was browsing through YouTube (one of the reasons why I am a chronic insomniac) and I came across a commercial for Ford starring Zoë Kravitz and SZA. They were driving around LA and were talking about identity, confidence, unity among women, and being true to who you are.
As I watched the commercial, the song or rather the beat stood out to me. I kept saying to myself while trying to listen and jam out simultaneously, “I never heard this song before but I love it. What is the name of this song?” Shazam was not close enough to me, so after some extensive research I discovered SZA’s latest single at the time, “Drew Barrymore.” I intrigued by SZA’s choice for that song title. After listening to the song for the first time, I was hooked. I began to scour the internet, looking for live performances of “Drew Barrymore” and pretty much anything SZA-related.
Then on June 9, 2017, “Ctrl” was finally out for everyone to listen to. One thing I noticed was how I listened all the way to “Drew Barrymore” then would skip to “Broken Clocks.” I could not understand it. When speaking to a close friend of mine, I kept saying that I could not connect to the middle of the album. Then, I spoke to a coworker one day and saw his perspective for a lot of the songs in the middle of the album. I went home and gave the album another spin. The rest was history.
The album started off with SZA’s mom saying, “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.” That was something that determined a lot of the decisions I made in life and what scared me the most: losing control. Frankly, I thought it was something that scared a lot of people. How much did we share, how much of ourselves did we give without having to completely start from scratch? How could we see ourselves as the supermodel others saw in us? It seemed like SZA was peeling off layers to fully tell her story. There’s a lot of anxiety that goes with that. In the opening tracks of the album, there were feelings of regret along with frustration and SZA was just over it. The songs sounded like a classic Tasha/Lawrence situation for my fellow Insecure fans.
After “Supermodel” and “Love Galore” came a song that kind of knocked the wind out of me. I wholeheartedly loved this collaboration with Kung Fu Kenny AKA Kendrick Lamar and the “Forrest Gump” references in this song. However, I was also speechless at first and later applauded the topic discussed in “Doves in the Wind.” Both artists talked about the obsession with “hunting, capturing, and taming” vaginas like it was a prized possession or a wild animal. Yet, there is one thing to note: women have birthed civilizations from the beginning of time to this day. There was much more to a woman than our sex and the act of sex. From the amount of times, SZA and Lamar referenced vaginas in this song, they were not afraid to remind us of that and to drive this point home.
Besides the stories that came out of this musical experience, I loved how raw the lyrics were. These were the scandalous stories we told our closest friends, the introspective moments we had in the dark with ourselves. It may be part of the reason why this album is was so relatable. The themes of needing therapy, facing insecurities, and pretending like everything is okay when it is the complete opposite went back to the main theme of losing control. A lot of the album sounded like SZA was thinking out loud but the words happened to form a melody. The rest was short of magic to the ears.
This album was dripping in 90s references and I loved all of it. Preceding the 90s “it-girl” Drew Barrymore, there were nods to the comedy sketch show “MADtv” and previously mentioned “Forrest Gump” in “Doves in the Wind.” After “Drew Barrymore,” there were references to the 90s hit show “Martin” and the 90s cartoon “Pepper Ann.” All of the songs reminded me of my school days, of making mistakes, learning from them, and repeating them, too. The growing pains of growing up gave a wealth of experience. It made all of the awkward acne phases and the missed prom dates worth it.
In between the 90s blasts from the past came “The Weekend,” which was quite the controversial song. It reminded me a lot of the late Aaliyah’s “Come Over,” especially the bridge of the song where R&B singer Tank’s crooning was all one could ever want and need in life. “The Weekend” could hands-down be the theme song for all side chicks. The song itself also reminded me of another Aaliyah song. In her last album, “I Can Be” was from the point of view of the other woman. It made me wonder if SZA drew any references from that?
The songs “Garden,” “Broken Clocks,” and “Anything” spoke about intimacy or rather the lack of it. There was physical attraction or something like it that was evident in the subject matter of the songs, but SZA knew it was not enough to sustain the relationship(s). Her significant other(s) told her everything she wanted to hear and played their role(s) perfectly, but it was not enough. She hoped that they could lie to her, remain blind to each other’s flaws, and keep up the ruse of the relationship. Yet, it’s unsettling when intuition kicks in. There was not enough time to play the silly games of he/she-loves-me or he/she-love-me-not; there was nothing else to hold on to but the truth. It was evident in the line SZA sang repeatedly, “Do you even know I’m alive?”
In “Wavy,” one of the most stellar interludes I have ever heard, SZA faced herself head on. No more questions about it, she owned her flaws and spoke to them (and herself) out loud. She had issues. Same, girl, same. Yet, she knew like hopefully we knew, we have to do better: “Just give as much as you take, forgive as much as you hate, or get the f-ck out.” Now, SZA was wavy. Waving goodbye to all the problems and insecurities that made her question herself and ultimately led her to this point in her life. Such was life when you’re growing up and growing into your purpose.
The last three songs took on a more mature attitude as SZA had a better handle on what she wanted in love and life. The “Normal Girl” was reminiscing on her metaphorical acne phase where she was still figuring things out. In “Pretty Little Birds” despite all of the love lessons life taught her, she hoped to find someone who would make her feel as if letting down her hair would come as easy as breathing. The closing song was a tribute to the 20s, the worst and best decade at the same time. Figuring out life while broke and heartbroken but still optimistic with the fountain of youth on your side? Insert a heavy, but accepting sigh here. Stay blessed, dear 20s, stay blessed.
As a woman in my twenties, this album was all too real and relatable. I took my time, really got acquainted with every song, gave this album a good listen, and reached the verdict: no one’s cooler than Pepper Ann except for SZA for adding so many layers, references, and memories in this album. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this album and I am sure I will continue to. Nowadays, it is really hard to listen to an album from start to finish. I’m glad to say this is not the case for this album. Do yourself a favor and check out SZA’s “Ctrl.” I was glad I did.