By Sanai Rashid
Ctrl, Solána Rowe, a.k.a. SZA’s, debut album, conveys an intimacy that is like being in a room with a thousand golden mirrors all reflecting your image. However, instead of each mirror shining back how you currently stand, every looking glass unveils a different version of yourself — how you would have turned out if you didn’t let a certain person hurt you, and where you would have gone if you trusted your heart instead of your head. Most importantly, who you could have loved if you finally learned to love yourself.
The day before Ctrl’s release SZA told Vulture “On ‘Supermodel,’ when I say I need you, each time I said that I was saying something different, I was talking to someone different.” In the 49 minutes split between the 14 tracks of the album, SZA demonstrates that we all want to squeeze as much juice out of life while we are here. Yet, sometimes we have to shuffle around mountains of uncertainty to fully appreciate everything we once begged for. So as I navigated my sophomore year of high school last school year from the corners of my bedroom, Ctrl‘s message of power and vulnerability resonated deeply.
No longer a young freshman, I felt lost in the abyss of identity during tenth grade. Every day new challenges sprung up like weeds in a rose garden, knocking me off my course. Navigating internal changes while the world became unrecognizable during the pandemic was exhausting and confusing. Wading through the troubling waters of depression, anxiety, and overthinking didn’t help either. Like SZA on songs such as “Drew Barrymore,” “Prom,” and “Garden (Say It Like Dat),” I wondered if I was worthy of receiving love while desperately wanting to be cared for by someone — anyone. All the while neglecting the tenderness and affection I could have shown to myself all along.
As SZA sang through her troubles on Ctrl, they paralleled the spider web of thoughts and rubber band ball of my feelings. When I hopped into the shower, the earbuds under my bonnet blasted her words. As I scrambled to figure out geometry proofs, SZA cheered me on. After hours on Zoom for class, I hopped on my bike and rode down the streets with the evergreen album pulsating through my ears.
Although every track of Ctrl “hits different,” there were four songs sung by SZA, that made me, a teenager just trying to find herself, feel seen.
Supermodel On Valentine’s Day, SZA’s ex-boyfriend left her for another woman. Betrayed and hurt on what is supposed to be the most romantic day of the year, she coped with these feelings by sleeping with one of her ex-partner’s friends. It’s easier to act out in anger than to address the more complicated feelings we have when others do not treat us well, but it doesn’t mean these emotions fly away. Behind the lullaby guitar riffs of this track, SZA contemplates her worth: “Why I can’t stay alone just by myself?/ Wish I was comfortable just with myself.” However she still wanted to be loved by those who did her dirty: “But I need you, but I need you, but I need you.” As the chorus rings, “I could be your supermodel if you believe/ If you see it in me, see it in me, see it in me/ I don’t see myself,” my bones rattle. One too many times, I have acted out thoughtlessly to get people’s attention when they didn’t even deserve my attention. When we are younger we read fairytale books telling us that we will never be happy if we do not find our soulmate. “Supermodel” taught me that you can never fully live up to somebody’s standard, so as cliché as it may seem, you truly must get comfortable with yourself. Undoubtedly, self-love is the hardest to attain.
Doves In the Wind (feat. Kendrick Lamar) Due to patriarchal influence, femininity often can be seen as a negative identity when it is anything but that. In “Doves In the Wind,” SZA reclaims something society tells women to be ashamed of — our bodies, and more specifically, our vaginas. SZA sings, “Pussy like doves in the wind,” while Lamar raps, “D*ck is disposable.” So, while this message of mutual respect in relationships is essential for teen girls like myself to hear, having a vagina and dating men is not criteria for womanhood. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my feminist musings this year and reading books like Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay, it is that womanhood is not a uniform state of being. No matter how you dress, what your body looks like, or who you date, there is no one way to be a woman. Each listener will listen to this song through a different lens, and similarly, musicians sing what they know. The patriarchy has stripped women of power for far too long and there is no better moment for us to be unapologetically ourselves.
Prom The fifth track of Ctrl revels in a pop-disco sound that goes hand in hand with the starlight, purple fluorescent lights, and gym dance floors across America during prom season. SZA sings about this staple of teenhood and maturation, and contrasts it with how unprepared she feels to move onto the next stage of life. Too busy living in the moment, she “forget[s her] future,” and comforts herself by “prom[ising] to get a little/ better as [she] gets older.” However, I am the opposite. So focused on my future, I forget to pay attention to the excellence around me. Wondering whether or not I have enough friends, if my Instagram feed looks trendy, and stressing about PSAT exams stalled me in life just as much as SZA. As she rattles, “Fearin’ not growin’ up/Keepin’ me up at night,” I question whether or not I’m growing up too fast. Then, “Am I doin’ enough?/ Feel like I’m wastin’ time,” reminds me everyone is worried about something. Teens always want to compare their growth to their peers, but that is impossible. Understanding that everything in this world takes time is the key to staying grounded.
20 Something As SZA recorded this last song on the album, she was in her “20 Somethings.” When I first heard this track, I was in a “too early to have a midlife crisis,” crisis. As SZA sang, “20 something, all alone still/Not a thing in my name/Ain’t got nothin’, runnin’ from love/Only know fear,” though I was just sixteen at the time I felt that to my core. My sophomore year felt like playing catch up to all the big kids, while I still had no idea what I wanted to do in my life. “God bless these 20 somethings,” she adds. I agree. I want to revel in my “16 Somethings” a little bit longer. You are only in high school once, and no matter how irritating it may seem now, one day, I will miss this youth.
Ctrl shined a light on the idea that while I only have control over so many things, I shouldn’t let life make me out to be a reckless and uncaring being. While I cannot control how fast youth flies, I should enjoy every last bit of it. Even if I never find “The One,” I shouldn’t settle for anything less than I deserve. And if I am lost, stuck, and feel like every aspect of my life is in chaos, I can take a breath, pop on some SZA, and things will reveal themselves by dawn.