A few months ago I came across the album Ctrl by SZA, and I haven’t stopped listening to it. I don’t think I can.
Obviously, she and I have never met; but I need to put down in words somewhere how much of my life she sings to me despite that.
I have to start with Drew Barrymore. Though every single song on the album has something of me in it, I played Drew Barrymore several times in a row when I first heard it.
It was unbelievable. Someone as beautiful as SZA had the same tormenting questions as me? Someone as talented as her had also put all of her concentration and talent into pretence? Someone as incredible as her had felt the need to beg someone to stay?
But there she was, and there she still is, echoing thoughts I no longer voice because I refuse to let the words through the iron wall of my pride:
Is it warm enough for you inside me?
I get so lonely I forget what I’m worth
I’m sorry I’m not more attractive
I’m sorry I’m not more ladylike
I’m sorry I don’t shave my legs at night
Sorry I just need to see you, I’m
Sorry I’m so clingy I don’t mean to be
All those apologies, and each one for nothing, and she knows they’re for nothing. I have days, still, where I feel made of needless apologies like these; I breathe and spit and piss them out. I may as well add the word ‘sorry’ to my tattoo collection. Sometimes my entire existence feels like an apology to my mother for not being the several additional children she wanted and couldn’t have.
The killer line is, of course, ‘Do you really love me/Or just wanna love me down, down, down, down?’
It’s an endless question. And by the time you want to ask it, you usually know the answer; you’re already ‘down’ (again). You just need confirmation so you know you’re not paranoid.
But fast forward a little to Go Gina (we’ll bypass Doves in the Wind, no matter how aggressively I believe that sex can be a transcendent and freeing thing) and you find what for me has been the conclusion of almost every learning experience in my life so far:
I belong to nobody, hope it don’t bother you
You could mind your business
I belong to nobody, try not to disturb
And mind my business
Still works for me, it works for me
It reminds me so much of another black woman who reflects my truth – of Nayyirah Waheed and her poem ‘in’:
i am mine.
before i am anyone else’s.
That one really will be a tattoo, on my forehead if necessary – I let myself forget it for a few months, but I never will again. There’s this thing I do where I deliberately put myself into unsafe hands (unconsciously at first, but lately deliberately, in one way or the other) and then wonder why I lose myself. I get misplaced or thrown away or left under the bed. I get dented – not broken, not in any way I wasn’t before – but marks are made and I have to sand them away, varnish them, beat them out if necessary.
So. Go Gina reminds me that I am the only one capable of holding myself, and even if I occasionally fall to pieces, it’s still only me who can fit them all back together. It’s possible one other person could do it, but he’s not here and I have learned to be without him; a lesson all children have to learn at some point. Anyway, conclusion: I must be wiser, and more careful with myself.
But the track after that, Garden (Say It Like Dat)…that song, horribly, describes exactly what a part of me has always wanted. It’s embarrassing to me that SZA can admit it and I can’t, despite how brave I try to be, how honest. She asks her lover:
Can you remind me of my gravity?
Ground me when I’m tumblin’, spirallin’, plummetin’ down to Earth
Love me even if it rain
Love me even if it pain you
I know I be difficult
What she would give for someone to be there to catch her, love her despite the bad times and the parts of her that aren’t easy and soft. A few seconds later, the chorus betrays her even more clearly:
You’ll never love me, you’ll never love me, you’ll never love me
But I believe you when you say it like dat
Only you need me when you say it like dat
Oh I believe you when you say it like dat
You must really love me
That first line is her speaking to herself. It’s impossible for someone to love her. How could they when she’s so difficult, when there’s a whole world of people? But then whoever she’s singing to tells her it’s true, and she believes it because it’s everything she wants in the world, and it’s hard to push that kind of thing away.
So much for love and all that. The last song I want to introduce you to is one where I didn’t feel that she was singing about herself and also accidentally about me; this is one I felt she was singing to me. It’s called Pretty Little Birds.
Pretty little bird, pretty little bird
You’ve hit the window a few times
You still ain’t scared of no heights
When the spiral down feels as good as the flight
It’s achingly familiar to me. But if I am a bird, I don’t have hollow bones; I don’t have that kind of fragility. You can’t if you’ve slammed into as many windows as I have. And I feel that as a blessing.
P.S. If you were wondering, it’s pronounced ‘Control’ and ‘SIZ-uh’.