I stumbled upon SZA entirely by accident when Spotify, clearly knowing I needed something to fill the Jhene Aiko shaped hole in my life, suggested her as a “similar artist.”
I had been listening to her almost subconsciously on repeat, like a super fan who was still in denial about the extent of their obsession. It only hit me that the scope of her popularity stretched far beyond my humble Spotify playlist when my Dad was raving about a new artist called “scissor” (the correct pronunciation of “SZA,” which I had not yet realised). This proved two things: 1.) that this woman was worth the hype and 2.) my Dad is far cooler than I will ever be.
It turns out this 26-year-old New Jersey girl had been causing a stir for quite some time, despite walking away from music for good just last year. She had been putting out EPs since 2012, which took the interest of rapper/producer Terrance “Punch” Henderson, who signed her to Top Dawg Entertainment, the home of Kendrick Lamar, Isaiah Rashad and Schoolboy Q.
Whilst she was writing songs for Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé, she was still yet to put anything out that she could call her own. Fed up with what seemed like an endless waiting game, she tweeted last October “I actually quit. @iamstillpunch [Henderson] can release my album if he ever feels like it. Y’all be blessed.”
SZA, real name Solana Rowe, comes across as someone who has had to work incredibly hard to get where she is today, but I didn’t need to understand her background to know this. On “Go Gina,” the seventh track on her debut album Ctrl, she sings “I’ve been on the low-key grinding/learning on the low key, shining” bringing with it an interesting mix of modesty yet an almost brutal honesty which goes on to shape the entire tone of the album.
It will probably take you quite a few listens of Ctrl to realise you’re also “low-key” in love with SZA, and indeed it is one of those rare musical compilations that seems at first forgettable, and then becomes the soundtrack to your everyday interactions and conversations.
It was no sooner after I heard her first track, “Supermodel” that I could sense a kind of creative connection with SZA, one that I hadn’t experienced with any female musician since Solange or Jhene Aiko. Maybe that’s because listening to SZA feels like curling up with a glass of rosé and pouring your heart out to your best friend.
She sings: “Let me tell you a secret/I been secretly banging your homeboy/Why you in Vegas all up on Valentine’s Day?” Not only did she seem to have an equally as shit Valentine’s Day as I did, her lyrics were written with an honesty that you couldn’t make up if you tried, as you will also discover in tracks like “Love Galore,” featuring Travis Scott and “Doves in the Wind,” featuring Kendrick Lamar. As she told a shocked interviewer for The Guardian about her lyrics “unfortunately, it is [all true].”
With artists like the aforementioned Minaj, Beyoncé and new hot-favourite Cardi B conveying a sense of black womanhood that is encouragingly both aspirational and ruthless, it’s easy to forget that women of colour have certain vulnerabilities and feelings that can’t always be expressed neatly alongside messages of empowerment.
The opening lines to “Prom” read: “Fearin’ not growin’ up/Keepin’ me up at night/Am I doin’ enough? Feel like I’m wastin’ time.” This track is a personal favourite of mine, not least because I associate with the feelings of self-doubt that is equally relevant and painful for most 20-somethings with career and life ambitions that seem less and less achievable as we get older.
“CTRL is unapologetically proud of its womanhood”
For this reason, SZA’s lyrics epitomise the 20-something zeitgeist of being shit-scared of just about everything, but diving in head first anyway. “Garden (Say It Like Dat)” is a delightfully dreamy track in which SZA wants to maintain a distance from her lover whilst consuming herself within them.
She hopes she’ll “never find out” that they’re “anyone else” but also that they “never find out” who she really is. She concludes her final verse with “can you hold me when nobody’s around us?”- expressing a fear that constantly being expected to perform, to play a role in our equally socially obsessed and socially awkward society, that prevents her from revealing the “real her” in the fresh stages of a relationship.
She continues with a persistent but somehow never irritating tone of insecurity. Falling victim to society’s constant need to pit women against each other, in “Drew Barrymore,” she sings: “You came in with your new friends/And her mom jeans and her new Vans/And she’s perfect and I hate it.” In pop culture, Drew Barrymore has become synonymous with ideas of insecurity and a pursuit for identity, in movies like Never Been Kissed and Poison Ivy, coming-of-age stories which this track pays homage to with a modern R ‘n’ B re-working that only SZA seems to manage.
Being always semi-permanently stuck in the angst of my teenage years, I’ve always been a fan of music that can tell the classic coming-of-age story. Being spoon-fed The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by my Dad growing up to moderately rebelling with my Paramore and My Chemical Romance phase to venturing into the disorientating phase of my 20s listening to Alessia Cara’s Four Pink Walls, CTRL seems to mark the next stage in the one-woman stage-show of My Life: A Tragi-comedy.
CTRL could be another album about starting-from-the-bottom and slaying life with no obstacles along the way, but SZA knows that life doesn’t always work out that way. At its core, CTRL is unapologetically proud of its womanhood with but there are an underlying yet inescapable insecurity, a doubt and a tension that makes CTRL one of the most honest albums I’ve heard in a long-ass time- and might just be the soundtrack to my 20s.
Stream CTRL on Spotify