SZA and the relentless twentysomethings

In January, days after my 25th birthday, I read my first Jamaica Kincaid. I highlighted and screenshot several passages but the one that stood out was: “My youth was exhausting, it was dangerous, and it is a miracle that I grew out of it unscathed.” In Putting Myself Together, an essay published in The New Yorker in 1995, Kincaid mulls over the long, hard journey of inventing herself.

At 25, it feels like I’ve been in my 20s for at least 15 years. It’s lonely, it’s tender, I bore myself. But I’m in no rush to no longer be Nomali, twentysomething years old.

SZA, born Solána Rowe, courting 27, has lived a full life. Unlike most of our generation (mine and SZA’s) her visibility doesn’t give her the reprieve to unlearn from the comfort of deleted tweets and old Tumblr accounts. You don’t have to look very hard to find SZA receipts: the homophobic tweet, the Beyoncé disrespect (shudders) that the pettiest in the Beyhive dredge up each time SZA makes a career move or announcement.

She’s since apologised for early 20s transgressions and modelled for Beyoncé’s clothing label Ivy Park and congratulated King Bey on her pregnancy. I’m not sure whether an apology automatically deserves the erasure of past mistakes, but from the sounds of her new album, it doesn’t seem SZA believes that either.

What comes in the self-assured Ctrl, her full-length debut, is a certainty that comes from the rigorous sort of self-invention and putting in the work, falling and getting up that Kincaid writes about. And it sounds stunning.

On Ctrl, SZA lays bare what sounds like a turbulent almost seven years of no longer being a child: bad breakups, mundane jobs, sad hook-ups, hoping for the best in love but coming up short. Good things happen, bad things happen. And you still have to clock in at your job. She goes into more than 50 minutes of demonstrating all the situations over which she’s had no control and yet she’s still here.

SZA sings and I catch myself mid-gasp because what she has just put to words and music is something I’ve thought or felt. “That’s my greatest fear that if I lost control or did not have control, things would just … it would be fatal,” her mother says as the album opens.

Is there anything more comforting than the physical presence of a black parent in their child’s music? From the funny banter between Kendrick Lamar’s parents on Sherane to Solange Knowles’ parents’ presence throughout the monumental A Seat at the Table, black artists are loudly reaffirming that we come from a special place and, at the end of the album, SZA’s mother says, if control “is an illusion, I don’t wanna wake up”.

As in most of life’s stages, bad things happen to you in your 20s. Exhilarating, life-affirming things happen to you in your 20s. What SZA sings throughout Ctrl often leaves me feeling seen. These lyrics, in places, feel like the statuses from the early 2010s that Facebook has taken to reminding me about on a daily basis and I wonder how much of the material is from an earlier time in the artist’s life too. They are things I have, and will continue to write down casually on Tumblr and Twitter but wouldn’t necessarily say out loud. How do you even begin to share your insecurities and get vulnerable with the world? SZA shows us how.

Something as seemingly trivial as feeling bad about not having a rounded and bouncy bum (or being short or chubby or the wrong complexion for other black girls and women) are valid. On the day of the album’s release, SZA tweeted “Smol booties matter” in response to a fan saying: “This new SZA just made me wanna give a booty rub to somebody with no ass.” A reference to Garden, which will likely be the most quoted song on Ctrl.

Supermodel is a great opener because it puts the themes of the album at the forefront: SZA wants what she wants and you’d want it for her too if you really saw her. In 14 tracks, not only does she reckon with the expectation of perfection but also what it means when you, a young black woman, find yourself to be falling short.

As someone who’s struggled with interpersonal relationships, even as I crave the intimacy, I found myself moved by the honest ways she says exactly what she wants and needs. She doesn’t gloss over the things that might trip up the relationship: she needs attention, she wants all of you, she can get another man if the object of her desires fails to show up.

In all her vulnerability, SZA still has room to make something clear: “I belong to nobody/ I hope you understand/ I belong to nobody/ you can mind your business.”

These are the parameters. Just because she said she needs you, it doesn’t mean you are in control.

The album is grounded by voice clips of SZA in conversation with her mother. In the lead up to Doves in the Wind, the ode to pussy, her grandmother says: “If you don’t say something, speak up for yourself, they’ll think you stupid!”

Which brought to mind a famous Zora Neale Hurston quote: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” SZA is never silent.

As Kincaid once wrote, as I know from experience and as SZA has put in an album, it’s difficult to be young. I’d also add that it’s difficult being alive. But each milestone, each hurdle we overcome makes it feel worth it. The growing pains and sore hearts mean we are all still here, trying. So yes, God bless those twentysomethings.

Nomali Minenhle Cele is a writer and critic from Soweto

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday