SZA—born Solána Rowe—is not the first name that might pop into anyone’s mind when you hear the word “badass.” She dropped out of college after smoking too much weed, stumbled upon music without any real aspirations, and, last October, threatened to quit music via Twitter. And yet, in Ctrl, her very first full-length album (released earlier this month), the 26-year-old songstress’ raw vulnerability has proven that badass women are not, in fact, perfect.
Punctuated by recordings of her mother’s voice, Ctrl—which also includes tracks with Travis Scott and Kendrick Lamar—is precisely what SZA gained after “letting go.” An R&B masterpiece, the album is essentially a gift to twentysomething women who’ve been programmed to follow a specific path, fall in love with the perfect boy, and live happily ever after. Instead, SZA gives us failed Tinder dates, the frustration and sadness stemming from lovers who never want to commit, lonely nights guzzling wine bottles, and an endless, cyclic fear of failure. In other words, realism.
“Hopin’ my 20 somethings won’t end / Hopin’ to keep the rest of my friends / Prayin’ the 20 somethings don’t kill me, don’t kill me,” she croons in “20 Something,” the album’s last song. In “Normal Girl,” SZA expresses her longing to be, well, a normal girl, one without an inkling of neurosis. “Wish I was the type of girl you take over to mama / The type of girl, I know my daddy, he’d be proud of / How do I be? How do I be a lady?” Part Amy Winehouse, part Nina Simone, SZA’s raspy voice and ultra-relatable lyrics tug right at the heartstrings.
To backtrack a bit, SZA first burst onto the music scene in 2012 with her debut EP, See SZA Run. She later released S and Z, which music critics categorized as “alt R&B.” The Missouri native would have released the final installment of the album series, A, but instead chose to name it Ctrl. For someone who never dreamed of a career as an artist, she’s done quite well for herself, managing to get signed by Top Dawg Entertainment (home to Lamar and Scott) and co-writing and singing alongside Rihanna in “Consideration,” the first track on RiRi’s Anti album.
SZA grew up in a Muslim household and recalls being the only black girl in many of her social circles. “They would snatch my hijab off and follow me home. My dad would be outside waiting for me,” she told Vogue in an interview. She studied marine biology in college, but flunked out her freshman year. Later, she moved to New York City where she worked as a bartender in a strip club. After she recorded some vocals for her brother, who is a rapper, she opted to give music a try. “I don’t think I knew what an album was like. I didn’t know how to make an album,” she told to Complex. “I just became an artist one mixtape ago.”
Does that reduce her artistic significance? No. SZA is the kind of artist we need in 2017—a genuinely uninhibited songwriter who confesses her sins proudly on record.“Let me tell you a secret / I been secretly banging your homeboy,” she admits in “Supermodel.” She reveals her darkest thoughts: “I get so lonely, I forget what I’m worth” in “Drew Barrymore.” (Psst, if you haven’t seen the recently released music video for this yet, watch it now. Barrymore even makes an appearance.) She pays homage to vaginas everywhere in “Doves in the Wind,” singing, “That pussy like doves in the wind, hey, hey / Pussy like doves in the wind / I will make you beg for it / I wanna see you call out.” Music outlets say that Ctrl might be one of the best albums of the year, comparing its contents to the kind of female confessions found in Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Solange’s A Seat at the Table.
SZA’s truth is the recognition that, to be really empowered, a woman needs to find her own truth—not anyone else’s—and come to terms with her imperfections and fears to see herself for what she really is, a sexually liberated young woman who feels lonely when the party’s over, a woman who sometimes finds herself in the throes of an affair (listen to “The Weekend”), someone who runs from love as much as she desires it, and one who wishes that sometimes, she could just feel normal. But where’s the fun in that?