No Longer “20 Something”: SZA’s ‘CTRL’ Five Years Later

SZA performs
SZA's Jersey 4 Jersey Quarantine Performance (New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund, 2020)

In a 1974 interview, the legendary British singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading said this: “Black women don’t sing sweet because they haven’t been brainwashed so much into thinking they’ve got to be weak. The opposite, they’ve got to be strong. So they just get on with it.”

Over 40 years later, that’s more or less the sense you get from SZA’s Ctrl: she just gets on with it. “I’ve paid enough of petty dues / I’ve had enough of shitty news / I’ve had a thing for dirty shoes since I was 10 / Love dirty men alike,” she casually relays on the now-classic “Broken Clocks” over arpeggiated synths and skittering beats. 

Even though she’s appreciative of her ex’s lingering affection (and attention), her priorities are clear: she’d much rather get the dough and promptly tells her ex to get out of her way lest he make her late to work again.

I had taken quite a liking to SZA since her EP days, most notably 2014’s Z, but Ctrl signaled the arrival of a proper artiste, the sound of a person coming into her own. You could feel it in the opening riffs of lead single “Drew Barrymore”: gone was the murky, vibey soundscape of her earlier releases, in its place a more honest, raw, and confessional excursion.

“Drew Barrymore” came out at a curious juncture in my life too. I was smack dab in the middle of a confusing situationship which was on its inevitable way out. “It’s hard enough you got to treat me like this / Lonely enough to let you treat me like this,” she seethes in the track’s bridge. And I felt that. “Do you really love me? Or just wanna love me down?” 

In my case, the answer was neither.

When Ctrl dropped later in 2017, my feminist and LGBTIQ rights activism was in full swing. I might have been basking in a renewed sense of camaraderie with my then-burgeoning queer squad, but also dealing with the aftermath of the aforementioned situationship (and another, then another one, plus a couple others that did not yield any poetic musings) and just the messiness of quarter-life crisis in general. 

There’s a sense of world-weariness but also subtle and profound discernment to Ctrl that I immediately responded to upon its release. It continued to reverberate in the years that followed. Ctrl soundtracked numerous hangout sessions, house parties and sleepovers since my friend at that time, a refugee from Iran who’s since settled in Canada, was absolutely crazy over the album and would play it whenever and wherever. I never once minded it.

An ex once called it “the best album forever and ever” and singled out the bouncy “Prom” as his favorite. I was never crazy about the song, but five years down the line, I’m beginning to suspect perhaps he was trying to say something with this rather offbeat choice.

It’s right there in the opening couplets: “Fearing not growing up / Keeping me up at night / Am I doing enough? / Feel like I’m wasting time.” He and I met at a curious juncture in our lives: I was in between jobs, he was in between relationships. Both of us were essentially directionless and that’s how we complemented each other in a major, life-changing way, even if only for a moment in time.

One time he tagged me on his Instagram Story while he was driving home from work and the song was blasting in his car. From the windshield I noticed it was raining. “Once I get to Melbourne, we’ll be blasting the entire album while riding the night away,” I promised to him. It never got to happen.

Right now I feel it pouring / I need a little bit / Just a little bit…

– “Prom”

That situationship inevitably took years to untangle from my system. There was a period where I would spend my nights having my heartstrings tugged by “Normal Girl.” “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,” she laments in the song’s chorus over synth lines and drum beats that ebb and flow. 

I have spoken at great length about guys who claim to be bisexual or queer just to score woke brownie points, or those who are actually that but still opt for heterosexuality (and therefore heteronormativity) anyway because it is a safer option for them. Why lose your male and hetero-passing privilege when you don’t have to?

But I wouldn’t lie — there are times I, too, wish I were a “normal girl,” perhaps in a straight female body. Or just someone pretty, palatable, presentable. Someone desired.

Then again, I figure “normal” gets boring after a while. Perhaps I actually dodged a bullet with that one.

***

I, too, once prayed my 20 somethings wouldn’t kill me. But they did, and it’s alright.

Joni Mitchell’s seminal Blue closes with the solemn, devastating piano ballad “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” which recounts a final rendezvous with a former flame who has since settled down to domesticity and in turn chastises her romantic bohemian ways (“He told me, “All romantics meet the same fate / Some day, cynical and drunk and boring / Someone in some dark café”). 

At its closing, Mitchell deduces that “all good dreamers pass this way some day… only a phase, these dark café days” as a means to pick her hopeful romantic self up, although knowing full well that her ways haven’t exactly gotten her to where she craves to be.

“20 Something” closes Ctrl by and large in similar fashion. Stripped to just an electric guitar and vocal reverbs, SZA announces at its very start how “honesty hurts when you’re getting older” before blurting out her insecurities about capping off her 20s “all alone still” without a thing to her name while “running from love… only know[ing] fear.” 

The only difference? Where “Richard” ends with Mitchell alone “hiding behind bottles in dark cafés,” SZA’s mother appears at the tail end of “20 Something” spewing out some much-needed wisdom to her daughter, but also to us all. “If it’s an illusion, I don’t want to wake up,” she proclaims. “I’m gonna hang on to it. Because the alternative is an abyss. A hole. A darkness. A nothingness. Who wants that?”

I know I don’t.

The parallels between Joni Mitchell and SZA are palpable. Their birthdays are only a day apart from one another. Both are emotional and dreamy Scorpio Sun and Pisces Moon. Both typically write in a stream-of-consciousness manner, giving their songs unorthodox rhythmic structures and thereby making them not necessarily sing-along material. Both use stage names (yes, “Joni Mitchell” isn’t the artist’s government name). Heck, SZA even wrote a demo called “Joni,” set for inclusion in her perpetually delayed sophomore release. 

Like Mitchell, SZA is one of the most defining voices of her generation. Five years after its release, Ctrl still resonates in magical ways and reveals new musical and lyrical layers with repeated listens — even the more popular cuts such as “Love Galore” and “The Weekend” still hold up and bounce with both sass and pathos. 

“In a way, she was able to precisely capture the feeling of being alone in your 20s,” writes BonoLightier, the top commenter under the “Drew Barrymore” video on YouTube. “It sounds like being alone at a party while all your friends are with their respective dates. It sounds like taking the subway alone after the party. It sounds like wanting to be with someone so bad but also knowing it won’t work out. It sounds like most of us feel: bitter, blue, confused, but somehow at the same time describes our feelings of nonchalant happiness, bountiful pleasure and juvenile restlessness. I don’t know how she did it, but I think this song is a perfect millennial tune.”

And that’s precisely it. Now when I rewatch the video, wherein SZA and her gang slouch about in their proverbial teenage wasteland day in and night out, it reminds me of a time in my life when that was my reality. The jarring, bittersweet clash between hopefulness and jadedness. The constant heartbreak and even more constant pining for romance, or simply connection. The shared feeling of “we’re in this together” with your nearest and dearest. The merriness and the loneliness of it all.  

I, too, once prayed my 20 somethings wouldn’t kill me. But they did, and it’s alright. That’s how I learned to gain control over my life. 

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Fajar Zakri
Writer based in Jakarta, Indonesia. Cares about stuff then thinks a lot/writes about it... when he feels like it.

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