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Soul-baring vulnerability lies at the core of the most evocative and moving music of recent years - artists like Phoebe Bridgers and Frank Ocean are notorious for lyricism that could melt even the coldest of hearts. At the same time, sex positivity in modern music has been steadily becoming more prevalent, with artists like Beyoncé (particularly on her 2013 self-titled album) and Megan Thee Stallion pushing further for the destigmatisation of sex in mainstream music. However, it seems that no artist has so masterfully blended vulnerability and sex-positivity as SZA on her 2017 major-label debut Ctrl.

"SZA's unwaveringly, yet reluctantly, optimistic is one that suitably represents the resolve of the younger generations"

Delving into experiences that tie physical and emotional vulnerability, while also discussing modern relationships in ways that are both empowering and sympathetic, SZA’s unwaveringly, yet reluctantly, optimistic voice is one that suitably represents the resolve of the younger generations. As she touches on themes such as exclusion, fetishisation and growth into self-love, her words resonate even more with young queer people of colour, like myself, and the experiences we have in the wider queer community.

"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." ("Supermodel")

SZA fights infidelity with infidelity on "Supermodel"

Beginning with the certain, yet stuttering words of her mother, the opening track, "Supermodel", not only establishes the album’s core theme of self-control and autonomy before the music even begins, but also provides a glimpse into the brutal honesty that is to come. The song depicts SZA’s response to a disloyal partner, exploring her fears at the thought of being left "for prettier women", needing "too much attention" and the inability to feel comfort in her own company. Loneliness and insecurity are ideas that pervade the album – in "Drew Barrymore", she laments being insufficient for her love interest in a situation of unrequited love, almost whispering under her breath "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’."

From the gentle vocals and slightly rushed delivery emerges a sentiment of disempowered desperation – both a self-pitying apology for not living up to these expectations placed on women, and a plea to match them. As a young queer person of colour finding my place within the overwhelming and white-dominated queer community, much of my struggle harks back to my conceptualisation of traditional Western beauty standards in relation to my own appearance, hence why SZA’s disheartened words struck such a chord.

In a more general sense, "Prom" revolves around the fear of maturing more slowly than a romantic partner, while "Garden (Say It Like Dat)" delves into dependence and the paranoia that comes with being in a situation where you struggle to believe those who claim they love you. Again, the latter touches on the fear of not aligning with the expectations of beauty placed on you, as she sings "I need your support now/I know you’d rather be laid up with a big booty/Body hella positive ‘cause she got a big booty/I know I'd rather be paid up/You know I'm sensitive about having no booty, having no body, only you buddy".

On "Normal Girl", SZA considers the stability of fitting societal expectations

SZA singing about the features she is expected to have and her anxiety surrounding the thought that her partner would prefer someone who better meets these expectations reminded me of how I would doubt my own beauty when I have been conditioned to believe that tall, muscular men with blond hair and blue eyes are heralded as the pinnacle of Western beauty. At the same time, on "Normal Girl", she explores the feeling of being fetishised – appreciated for her sexual aggression and the way she captures attention, when she wants to be "the type of girl that you take over to mama/The type of girl, I know my daddy, he’d be proud of", or, in other words, valued for more than her physicality. Hearing "Normal Girl" for the first time plunged me into memories of being ‘complimented’ by people on my ‘exotic’ appearance; SZA’s direct and honest lyricism served as a reminder of solidarity, that, albeit unfortunately, these experiences were not exclusive to me.


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However, amongst her dispirited lyrics about things out of her control, there are uplifting moments that remind you of the affirming feeling of being in control, both physically and emotionally. "Doves in the Wind" serves as an ode to sexual freedom, and "The Weekend", with its soulful sound and silky, sultry vocals, SZA sings about her indifference to the disloyalty of a partner, being perfectly satisfied knowing that she is getting exactly what she wants from the exchange, despite the partner’s dishonesty. "Go Gina", where she celebrates the liberating feeling of regaining control over how you are perceived, follows – these songs see SZA at her most confident and commanding, asserting that, even amidst the chaos of modern young adulthood, control can always be regained, a reminder that feels much needed in these tumultuous times when everything seems as if it is out of our control.

SZA touched hearts with a powerful quarantine rendition of "20 Something"

Dejected and weary, the closing track "20 Something" sees SZA at her most reflective and vulnerable, in the midst of a quarter-life crisis. Despite this, a spark of hope burns through the song – a spark of hope that her best memories will last, hope that she will hold onto what she loves, and hope that her youth doesn’t slip through her fingers. Timelier than ever, this song captures perfectly how times runs away from young people, especially during a pandemic that stunted and changed the lives of many. The music of SZA unites young people in our worries and struggles – nothing can ever truly unify an entire generation, but the frankness that comes with her songwriting invites an empathy unmatched by other artists. Perhaps my own experiences as a queer person of colour aren’t universal, or even shared, but SZA’s lyrics remind me that there’s a little less loneliness when you feel heard.