A Year in (and out of) CTRL: Lessons from SZA and Vulnerabilities of Being a TwentySomething

June 9, 2018 marked a year since SZA's debut studio album. A Year in Ctrl. Or, to keep it real, a year both in and out of control. At least it was for me. A year ago, I was embarking on what would become several transitions: leaving my first full-time job, returning to academia to start graduate school, leaving a therapist with whom I had spent years building a relationship, and moving into my first "real" (re: actually having to pay someone other than a college residential housing office to live) apartment with two people who had yet to learn the extent of my generalized anxiety and other quirks. I was fully engaging in what I pictured life as a twenty-something could be like, and it was overwhelming to say the least.

At the time, I was one year post-baccalaureate and felt the pressures of comparisons to others I went to school with who were in more traditional and established fields and already engaging in competitive positions with lucrative salaries. I felt unsure of myself. I felt as though I was behind where I needed to be given the reputations of my undergraduate institution.

Of course, I wasn't actually expressing any of this publicly. As a first-generation college student, I was not prepared for the post-graduation blues that comes with feeling like the excitement of my accomplishments was "over." Most of my identity growing up was built upon this idea of surpassing my parents and graduating from college meant that I had done so. I didn't feel exceptional. Instead, I felt inadequate. I felt underprepared. I felt out of control.

"That is my greatest fear.
That if, if I lost control
or did not have control, things would just, you know
I would be....fatal."

The opening interlude of this album put right in front of me the fears that I had been avoiding. While on the outside I was presenting as someone who was put together, I felt so internally spun out. I have known for some time that I am a high-functioning person with a mental illness, such that I often avoid or disassociate from the problems right in front of me.

CTRL forced me to face some of the fears I quite frankly had been avoiding in an effort to stay afloat. When the project first dropped, I felt like SZA could hear all the things that I was hiding from my friends, my family, and myself. The album is riddled with different levels of awkwardness and insecurity that SZA fully leans into. I spent my summer on the subway playing "Broken Clocks," and "Garden (Say It Like That)" on repeat. Naturally, I spent my first summer in New York looking something like this as I sang along to SZA:

Sza and friends crossing a New York City street
SZA gif provided by GIPHY.com

So many of these tracks still feel all too relatable. This project feels like a love letter to my anxiety and the insurmountable amount of pressure to overcome it. It's authentic. It's not all put together by any means. Instead, it's messy. It's vulnerable. It's a little messy (I had to address the "The Weekend" at some point, right?). It's imperfect. It's honest.

For the past year I have observed the attention that this project has received, and honestly, I wondered if most people heard the same songs that I had heard. The earlier lead singles like "Love Galore" and "The Weekend" though they are great, are tracks that mask what the album truly expresses: insecurity and unsureness. SZA is literally asking to be seen, heard, and loved over and over and over. SZA is also begging to feel part of something. What I take away from those moments is a general angst, wishing desperately to be seen.

What has been so grounding to observe in the year since this project has dropped is SZA's very honest and open discomfort with the project. Perhaps what I connected more than any song on CTRL is the number of times that SZA has expressed that she doesn't like her album as much as the rest of us do. She has mentioned in interviews how surprised she has been to see how much the album resonates with so many people.

"In this album, am I wilding? Is this mania? Or does everyone feel this way?"

- SZA, Interview with Ebro in the Morning, How 97.1

Hearing SZA express these concerns reminds me that part of being a twentysomething and beyond is the continual process of exorcising doubt, fear, and insecurity. In the year that I have continued to listen to this project, several lessons emerge:

  1. No one really ever feels fully confident in their twenties. Or at least, there isn't a fixed age-range where confidence hits you fully-onset.

  2. Intergenerational relationships between women are a strong, and spiritual strength. Thank you SZA's grandma. Part of being a twentysomething is that annoying desire for the things we are experiencing to feel novel, as if the generations before us have not experienced similar things. Sure, things might be new to us and have been quite literally invented by us. And also, there are many experiences that are consistent across time. This project reminds me often on the powers of intergenerational relationships.

  3. Sometimes, part of having control is knowing that you've lost it altogether. It doesn't need to be an awareness that you can locate right away, but certainly one that you are working towards.

CTRL is a great body of work because it taught me how to identify the things that I didn't have control over. I can't change my age. I can't get rid of my mental health issues. I can't control how I react to certain situations. I can however, control how truthful I am to myself. I can reach out for help and trust in the love of other women around me. I can control how much vulnerability I am able to display. After all, it is in these greater intimacies that bonds are held.

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