“That visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.” — Audre Lorde
The Grammys have a long and winding history of failing to properly honor Black art, despite the inexorable contributions Black musicians have made, and continue to make, to the industry and the world at large. Last year, when Beyoncé’s revelatory Lemonade lost to Adele’s 25, the British pop singer’s honesty was disarming as it was heartbreaking: “What the fuck does she have to do to win Album Of The Year?” The question wasn’t a rhetorical one, though it rose from her chest as if there was nothing anyone could possibly say to answer.
This year, a seismic shift offered some restitution: The nominees for the ultra-coveted “Best New Artist” award area all women or Black men. And more specifically, in that marginal space roils the alt-R&B singer SZA, whose debut album Ctrl earned five nods, christening Solána Rowe the most nominated woman at the awards show this year.
On Ctrl, SZA’s unadorned openness places insecurity at the world’s axis. Where her prior releases were criticized for being lackadaisical, Ctrl is shamelessly direct, with SZA finally commanding the foreground of her musical fantasia. Gone are the oblique metaphors and guarded language that ruled See.SZA.Run, S and Z. In this new universe, there aren’t any smokescreen reverbs and plugins, no disembodied voices, nothing to mask her words. Here, there is only SZA — lisp and all.
After a cursory first listen, it’s easy to mistake the album for a scathing riposte dragging ex-boyfriends and reliving the traumas of dating the emotionally impoverished. But this understanding of the project is too superficial, too lazy; SZA isn’t just documenting romantic relationships, or singing about empowered female sexuality, she’s building a mirror so she can better see and evaluate herself. And perhaps, so we can better understand ourselves, too.
When the album begins, SZA’s is not the first voice we encounter. Instead, she recruits her mother, a maternal emotional proxy, to illustrate how this pursuit of control continues ad infinitum, spanning generations: “That is my greatest fear. That if I lost control, or did not have control, things would just, you know, I would be… fatal.” And although the album title thematically refers not to the pursuit of control, but to the relinquishing thereof, we see SZA more vulnerable and self-aware and in control than ever before.
“I wanted to control the way people thought of me… saw me,” SZA told The Cruz Show. “I wanted to control the way life was going, controlling the pitfalls or the pain… And it’s just not possible. You can’t control the way other people feel. You can’t control the way they react. And once you lose enough, you allow yourself the space to relinquish control.”
There’s an element of dissociation — of distance — between us and our favorite cultural icons. It’s only through music and paparazzi, through calculated selfie angles and Snapchat zooms, that fans bridge this gap between us and them. This isolation allows a blind utopia for all: They remain perfect, we remain parched.
SZA seems acutely aware of this space, and she’s able to manipulate and control it in an extraordinary way. Through parables of desire, sexual freedom, and self-deprecation Solana is able to scrutinize herself in a way that feels unedited. Her music becomes the difference between a personal Instagram post (a hyper-glamourized, filtered iteration of self) and a tagged one (the reality: an unforgiving angle, an awkward expression.) She embodies the latter.
This is why we feel so close to SZA — she performs candor absent of facade.
On tracks like the album opener “Supermodel”, this nudity feels both deliberate and inadvertent; how she “seduces…without being objectified” as Reggie Ugwu wrote in a recent New York Times feature. There’s an oddly harmonious balance in her attacks and concessions, her confidence reconciles doubt just as soon as it shapeshifts back again: “You was a temporary lover,” she can spite, insubordinately. Then: “But I need you, I need you, but I need you.”
“Most of this album is me talking to me,” she explained on The Breakfast Club in June. Beneath its surface, Ctrl is a portrait of insecurity and self-doubt; it’s a catalog of wayward admissions intended for priests, or mothers, or therapists. Sometimes, SZA’s songs become worlds absent of men — and the freedom she creates in refusing to privilege them compels her anxieties and insecurities to take shape, be confronted and, sometimes, accepted.
Desire is a many-headed hydra. It’s a complicated emotion that can devolve into lust or transcend ambition; at its most complex and actualized self, desire becomes both. Case in point is the song “Normal Girl” where, for nearly three and a half minutes, SZA performs a heartbreaking self-underevaluation before finally concluding she could never be what anyone else wants her to be.
There’s power in her resignation, though the idea of “giving up” suggests the opposite. In examining her innermost depths, SZA draws from the teachings of Black feminist poet Audre Lorde, who once wrote: “If I look at my most vulnerable places and acknowledge the pain I have felt, I can remove the source of that pain from my enemies’ arsenals.” If her closet is empty, there are no skeletons to haunt her.
Perhaps SZA’s newly acquired recognition is reparations for last year’s unpaid precious labor. Despite behemoth releases this year, widely-favored female stars like Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Pink were overlooked at this year’s Grammy Awards, perhaps guiding them into an invisibility they’ve yet to experience as white pop artists. And in this dearth of familiarity, for a relatively new artist like SZA to conquer a realm where her type is habitually ignored and erased is no small achievement.
The first time I saw her, SZA was relatively unknown and filled with silence. It was 2014 and there she stood, onstage at what was once Toronto’s Sound Academy, a pillar of brown sunlight, jeans sinking beneath her hips and boxers bubbling over her waistband as she swayed. When her set began, SZA unraveled, singing of shirking advice, of refusing love, of untrustworthy pretty girls. “Bring on the thorny crown,” she demanded behind a slow-crawling beat, “Crucify me.”
Though her ethereal voice seemed to place her in the canonical diaspora of Jill Scott, Erykah Badu or Björk, at heart, SZA was a hellion, uninhibited by and unmoored to any definitive musical landmass. Instead, her sound was as agnostic as it was determinedly fluid. But even within her clear talent, SZA was overwhelmed by her accompaniment; fractured instrumentals surged above her voice.
Still, I was captivated. But she was whispering, and I was craning to hear what she had to say. By the time I realized her gravity, I was too late: SZA had vanished from the spotlight.
Her ensuing three-year hiatus was interrupted only by a few loose tracks that escaped into the Soundcloud realm. Where was she? When was she coming back? Perhaps, I thought, SZA was a spark now gone forever. I recalled what Paul Goodman had once written of silence: “Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each.” Maybe SZA was negotiating her volume. On stage, she was scarcely audible. Perhaps, she had simply chosen to disappear.
In silence, though, one ceases to exist. And Solána’s silence felt like it lasted a lifetime. It was so long it felt bottomless, almost infinite. When she materialized again on a balmy day last June, years later, SZA had discovered her voice. No longer would she betray herself in muteness. With Ctrl, her music had become a speech act, and with its utterance, SZA could begin to heal.
Healing cannot exist without language. It is through language that we can conceptualize that which we have not yet named, but have felt, many times over. This must be why listening to Ctrl feels like an exercise in self-care. The emotional accessibility and honesty that lives there breathe life into SZA’s pain and insecurities, liberating her first in her admittance that they exist at all.
What’s most interesting about SZA, perhaps, is her evolution into insolence; how she croons about the disposability of dick or opts out of romance to pursue sex absent of emotional connection instead. It’s a radical departure from the meekness of an artist we once knew.
We know better than to consider the Grammys as an ultimate measure of an artist’s success and worth. Last year, when the camera discovered Beyoncé’s face, twisted with anguish, she was nearly unrecognizable. At that very moment, she was not Beyoncé the Entertainer, or Beyoncé the Idea. At that moment, she was just Beyoncé, a human who had given so much and gotten so little in return. Her tears were not for Adele, they were for her utter invisibility, as an artist, as a woman, as a Black woman.
This isn’t to compare the two — of course, SZA is not Beyoncé. But as Myles E. Johnson writes, if we are ever to be fulfilled when it comes to art, to Black art, we must “reimagine what winning is in a white supremacist capitalist culture.” We must come to understand that we are the accolades. It’s quite possible that SZA, though nominated in five categories, will not win a single Grammy award. But it doesn’t matter, nor should it.
SZA has already won.