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The Pursuit to Just Feel Better: One Year With SZA’s ‘Ctrl’

One year later, ‘Ctrl’ remains a daily meditation on what I do and do not deserve.

“I get so lonely, I forget what I'm worth / We get so lonely, we pretend that this works / I'm so ashamed of myself think I need therapy” —SZA, “Drew Barrymore”

I began 2017 in tears. By the second verse of SZA’s evocative “Drew Barrymore” performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, six months before the release of her career-breaking debut album, Ctrl, I was a weeping mess. The poppy and astral sensibilities of her 2014 effort, Z, were shed in place of earthy melodies and heartfelt, soul-baring lyrics. At 27, SZA, born Solána Imani Rowe, was finally striking at the core emotions her previous projects danced around. I was sold, to say the least.

Watching SZA work the stage on Kimmel, it was clear that Top Dawg Entertainment’s First Lady was done hiding. This iteration of SZA appeared free and fluid, and though I was crying at my desk, I felt the wonderful weightlessness that comes with finally being heard. Ctrl was going to be SZA’s tell-all moment, and simultaneously, the retroactive soundtrack to the most taxing relationship of my life.

In the months leading up to Ctrl’s release, “Drew Barrymore” became my shelter and my stage. You see, once upon a time, I found myself in a relationship with a woman who also happened to be engaged to her former cocaine dealer. She always wore her ring, though she kept it hidden in pictures, and split her time between telling me I should let this relationship go, and telling me that she was mere minutes away from breaking her engagement.

Even our most precious idle times together were cut short by phone calls from her fiancé, during which I had to remain completely silent, lest he discover we were together. Their calls were under 10 minutes, but with every second that ticked by my self-loathing rose higher and higher until it had a complete stranglehold on my throat. I was younger, obviously, and the situation was very confusing—she pursued me over a six month period, so why wasn’t I enough? That line of questioning, that need to prove myself and prove I was worthy of being loved overtook my obsessions, made me malleable, and cemented me to the affair.

After his calls, she refused to speak to me, pacing in the side room until she came back to chide me for exhaling too loudly, having my phone volume on, or appearing generally “needy.” In these moments, sex was the only recourse and my body suddenly became a bargaining chip. There was no intimacy between us. I was simply succumbing in hopes of confirmation; complacency in hopes of validation. To undress was to say, “Here is this thing—my body—I can still offer you, and if you take it, I must be worth something.”

The day she decided to wrap things up, there was an implicit demand for sex and I acquiesced, while quietly crying, in hopes that by the end she would value me enough to stay. 

She didn’t.

When SZA belted “Is it warm enough for ya inside me, me, me, me?” before collapsing her pitch, I wept because, years later, someone had finally understood the rattling paranoia and insecurity that kept me in that relationship. Before her performance, there was only an inkling of concern around these dubiously consensual experiences, but as SZA broke into the earthy warbles of the bridge, I felt ready to piece together that the body is not a site for transactions.

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“I wanna be the type of girl you take home to your mama / The type of girl, I know your fellas they'd be proud of / Be proud of, be proud of, be proud of, boy you know” —SZA, “Normal Girl”

Once Ctrl was released in its entirety, I was granted a vocabulary to finally express the damage done. Ctrl quickly became, and remains, a once-a-day listen, wherein I began to peel my worth as a sexual object from my worth as a partner from my worth as a human being. In the year since the record’s release, I’ve come to understand that while the neurosis of Enough consumed me for the majority of the relationship, that yearning was superseded by the concept of visibility.

Everywhere she and I went, there were rules managing everything from holding hands to our proximity standing beside each other, to how loud I could laugh and how and when I should smile. There were rules for her friends and her family members and rules for our time apart. And there was always the question of "Why am I not happy with this perfect arrangement?"

Hearing SZA flourishing in her outrage on “Love Galore,” (“Why you bother me when you know you don't want me? / Why you bother me when you know you got a woman? / Why you hit me when you know you know better?”) gave me the gusto to ask some serious questions of my own, like, what the fuck was anyone thinking? On the path of self-improvement, few things are as gratifying as having the clarity to say, “What in the actual fuck was that mess?”

Ctrl simultaneously affirmed my anger and allowed me to refine it past the points of bitterness and misery, to the point of empowerment and self-efficacy. On “The Weekend,” SZA admits to her desperation with a hint of insolence, singing, “Fallin' all over love, like / Do it 'til it hurts less,” because she too can understand the quicksand I once dove into. You mistake the pain of the relationship as fallout from own inadequacies, you're assured as much, and the tumbling cycle and sinking persist. But now, SZA was hearing me, guiding me, helping me see myself.

Just as SZA demands on “Anything”—albeit with a hint of desperation, the vocal chopping having her sound like she’s choked up from crying—to have her humanity respected, I’ve begun to demand the same. This demand once felt egregious and unattractive, but now I can understand it to be an obvious necessity. There can be no grand ascent on “Pretty Little Birds,” no heavenly chords and rising up like a phoenix without the romantic impudence of “Anything.” Even the ache and honesty of “20 Something” would not be possible without that assuredness.

More importantly, the success and impact of Ctrl would not be possible were SZA not the most endearing woman in hip-hop. This is no trade secret, either. Kara Brown noted as much in her FADER cover story of the singer in February 2018, writing: “Ultimately, it is that ability to be relatable on a visceral level that SZA has tapped into and what has arguably defined her success.”

SZA is keenly aware of this as well, but not without a dose of humility. Speaking with The New York Times, she admitted that following Z, she needed to retool: “I realized that I was bored with myself. I was just feeling and emoting with no structure and no intent.” Ctrl is the ripe fruit of her intent, how the album can make me and thousands of fans feel weightless in our freedom and grounded in a pursuit to just feel better.

With Ctrl, SZA found the freedom to be insecure and vulnerable, but also the freedom to be assertive and an agent for her own happiness. Living with the record for a year, with the pivotal “Drew Barrymore” for even longer, the album is a daily meditation on what I do and do not deserve. It’s obvious that SZA did not set out to be a teacher, but in the process of communicating her “lonely thoughts,” as she explained, she found that “other people said, ‘Hey, I have lonely thoughts, too.’”

I needed SZA’s thoughts so I could come to terms with my own. That unintended but necessary community, all built on the back of her endearing personality both on and off wax, has helped Ctrl endure what feels like a lifetime in music. At the very least, it’s allowed Ctrl to mean damn near everything to me.



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