When I left college for the summer after my last final, I knew that I’d be returning as a senior who’d be stepping into the next chapter of my life in a matter of months. It’s a daunting time in your life when everything around you is supposedly changing for the better, but you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel for yourself. However, I have this theory that instead of obvious revelations happening, the universe sends us hints. SZA’s Ctrl album was my hint.
The album’s fourteen tracks of unfiltered, raw emotion set over smooth R&B beats and mellow guitar chords has become the unofficial soundtrack to my senior year; coaxing me closer to graduation every time I hit repeat and teaching me valuable lessons of self-love, letting go, and acceptance.
I knew of SZA as the pop-jazz indie darling featured on Rihanna’s ANTI, but had never listened to any of her extended play releases. Even though Ctrl was released last June, I listened to her for the first time in August when “Supermodel” was featured in a recommended playlist on Spotify. The song begins with SZA saying “I’m writing this just to let you know/I’m really leaving and no I’m not keeping your shit.”
“Who is this absolute badass asserting herself so confidently?” I wondered as I kept listening. “Supermodel” is patterned after the tried theme of wanting someone who either doesn’t or no longer wants you and how that can affect your self-esteem. For me, I interpreted as simply wanting to be enough for someone or really anyone. I forget how many times I replayed it, but I felt the chorus in my soul, “I could be your supermodel if you believe/If you see it in me…I can’t see myself.” In the same way that she’s wanting to be enough for someone else, she’s singing that she can’t see herself in the process. The message that I took from it was that being good enough for yourself is so much more important than to be enough for someone else.
I connected to “Drew Barrymore” right off the bat, so it’s no surprise that it turned out to be my favorite song on the album. “You came with your new friends and her mom jeans and her new Vans and she’s perfect and I hate it.” This is honestly me if I were to sing about every guy that I’ve liked while in college. There’s something about one-sided crushes that just suck (aside from the fact that they’re one-sided crushes). You see yourself with this person in your mind, but when you finally get the guts to act on it, you get shot down. It’s not a good feeling and once it starts happening enough to you, it can be hell on your self-esteem. In the chorus she asks, “Am I not warm enough for you outside?” and “Is it not warm enough for you inside me?” Sexual innuendos aside, this just goes back to wanting to be enough for someone and by the end, it shares the same message as “Supermodel” in that you need to be content in being good enough for yourself.
“Fearin not growing up/Keeping me up at night/Am I doing enough?/Feels like I’m wasting time.” At this point in my life, there’s a lot of uncertainty going forward. The pop disco track “Prom” unpacks every insecurity, hesitation, and challenge I’ve felt, spreads them out in front of me, and convinces me that I can conquer them all. It reminded me of how I was feeling in the last few months of my senior year before I graduated high school. “Promise to get a little/better as I get older/And you’re so patient/And sick of waiting.” The next chapter of my life is starting soon and when it does, I’m leaving all negativity at the door.
A running theme throughout the album was control and what it means to have it. From the first audio clip of her mother talking about what it felt like to not have it, to others where she’s posing the same questions to her grandmother; SZA dissects it in its most abstract form and presents us with an honest answer in the album’s final track “20 Something”. “Hopin’ my 20 somethings won’t end/Hopin’ to keep the rest of my friends/Prayin’ the 20 somethings don’t kill me.” She embraces the fact that she doesn’t have control over anything, that no one does, and that all you can do is hope for the best. This, for me, was the album’s most poignant message.
SZA has been killing it lately and honestly, she reminds me that I’m killing it at life too. Ctrl is perfect for those days when you’re feeling unsure about yourself because you’ll finish the album feeling like the queen that you are!