I got my first glimpse of SZA in 2015. I was attending Sweetlife Festival in Maryland primarily to see Kendrick Lamar, but I told my friends we had to go see this girl “S-Z-A.”
“It’s ‘Sizza,’” someone in the audience later corrected me. “Like RZA (Rizza) and GZA (Gizza).”
I obviously knew nothing about her. I’d never seen her picture. I liked a few songs from her EP, Z, which I’d only found because of its Chance The Rapper feature. But when SZA took the stage, she was just as sexy as she’d sounded through my headphones, whispering to me about gardens and flowers and warm winds on so many summer mornings.
Her cloud of long red hair bounced and underboob purposefully peeked out of her tank top as she danced under the blinking stage lights. Her skirt sagged below her boxers, and she pulled it off better than any man could. This was one of the most confident women I’d ever seen.
It wasn’t until I heard Ctrl, her debut album released last week, that I realized who SZA really is. Looking at that powerful woman on stage two years ago, I had no idea she was an almost identical reflection of myself.
Ctrl isn’t an album that screams “Love yourself!” but rather asks the question, “Why don’t you love yourself?” I’ve been asking myself that question for a while. It’s easy to pick out the things about yourself that you don’t like—SZA’s insecure about “having no booty,” and she toldRolling Stone that she’s always had “fucked up” teeth. But not loving yourself isn’t about hating your body. It’s about miscalculating your worth.
SZA doesn’t dance around her problems. She starts with “Supermodel,” explaining that her man left her and now he’s with someone else. I listened to her sing “Leave me lonely for prettier women, you know I need too much attention for shit like that,” and had to laugh. The exact same thing was happening to me, and I thought this album might be a distraction from it.
I had been in a long, on-and-off relationship that was mostly off, but mostly on inside my head. Now that it was really off and there was no turning back, I was really alone. I knew every track after “Supermodel” would be like looking at my future.
SZA knows she’s beautiful, but it can only be true through the eyes of someone who loves her. When that person forgets us and moves on, the spell is broken and we’re worthless. In “Love Galore,” she skrrt skrrts away from that guy and wonders “Why you bother me when you know you don't want me? / Why you bother me when you know you got a woman?” When that person we depended on comes back while they’re with someone else, we start to realize they don’t really value us the way we thought, and they never did. That’s supposed to show their character—they’re scum, their opinion of you shouldn’t matter—but we internalize it by thinking we were always worthless.
SZA struggles with the desperation of loving a man who’s moved on over the course of the entire album, even trying to share him in “The Weekend.” But we can never be warm enough for the one we want to stay.
Ctrl has moments of clarity where SZA stunts like the bad bitch we know she is. “Doves in the Wind” is the first cut through the heartbreak that’s fogged her mind. Pussy is power. Kendrick adds that "dick is disposable.” But the high doesn’t last. The next track, “Prom,” is the peak of her self-loathing. “Forget to call your mama on the weekend / You should put yourself in time out / Shame, shame on you,” she sings, scolding herself.
For the rest of the album, we listen as SZA finds her way, stumbles, falls and repeats it all trying to get over this guy and find confidence in herself. I wanted Ctrl to end on a happy note, but instead, I got something real. “20 Something” feels like it was written for me.
I was the girl in college who ran the body-positive club. I preached self-love, shot down body shaming, and shared inspirational posts on Facebook. But I still wasn’t open about my own weaknesses. I didn’t realize that self-esteem doesn’t stop at eating-disorder awareness events or refusing to shave my legs. Loving yourself means being open about your real flaws beyond what the eye can see.
At the end of the day, when I put down my phone and look at myself in the mirror before I fall asleep, I’m alone. I’m the one who has to live with me, my body hair, my tummy and everything I hate about my reflection that night. I look at myself and my first instinct is to pick at visual flaws, then shake it off because I say I love myself and I accept how I am. It took a long time to look at my reflection and see my choices and actions. To see why I chose to be with guys who leave me for prettier women. To see the denial I’d buried myself under like blankets in a warm bed. To see never feeling good enough. To see fear and hurt.
Your twenties are a time to make mistakes, but it’s also the time to find value in yourself. Hating yourself happens, but it isn’t cute now, and definitely won’t be with age. Eventually, we need to forgive the people who hurt us, but right now we need to forgive ourselves. Being open about our insecurities doesn’t mean they instantly dissipate, but you can’t get better until you face what really makes you feel bad.
As SZA made me realize, that's you starting to gain control.