After satisfying basic needs like nourishment and shelter, mutually empathetic relationships are crucial for living a happy and fulfilling life. Giving and receiving love is important, but can be clouded and complicated by personal insecurities exacerbated by partner violence. In American social order, masculinity is often toxically constructed to suppress emotional intelligence in men and push down non-masculine ideals as a way to hold men above others. In relationships between men and women, there exists plenty of space for men to project their toxicity upon women, establishing an avenue of shame and hurt in contrast to healthier, empathetic love language. Through her critically acclaimed record CTRL, SZA responded to relationships where love and harm seem to go hand in hand, simultaneously showing how difficult it is to deal with societal and interpersonal oppression and violence.
Part of what makes her work so impressive is the immediacy with which she states her intentions and conclusions. In CTRL’s opening track, “Supermodel,” SZA exposes the arc of her complex relationships without giving the consumer time to process its intricacies. It’s unsettlingly upfront and upsettingly preparational in the goal of representing the emotional hardship of responding to partner violence.
SZA viscerally performs the tug-of-war between knowing she’s beautiful and strong on her own and wanting to grow and trust her lover despite the insecurity he makes her feel. Whether it’s psychologically or sexually, one of the album’s themes is this feeling of insecurity relayed to her by harmful lovers.
On “Supermodel,” SZA sings about how she just needs someone to believe in her — and that as a result of her partner’s lack of care for her as well as his infidelity, she’s been “secretly banging your homeboy.” Rather than communicate her pain, it’s as if going behind his back and sleeping with his friend is the only way she can respond to the harm he causes her. The track’s chorus ends with “But I need you,” showing that love — or something similarly drawing — still exists in this near-broken relationship.
Sexual liberation is a plentiful theme on CTRL, and it seems to come from her interrupting the dredge of men only seeking sex and being unwilling to care for her or build her up. She addresses this on “Love Galore.” “Why you bother me when you know you don’t want me?”, “Doves in the Wind,” a bonafide vagina anthem, “Anything,” and “Normal Girl.” Including “Supermodel,” these are five tracks that touch heavily on the topic of men neither being willing or able to provide emotional stability — a heavy-handed critique on the way masculinity functions in relationships that should be full of love and empathy.
“The Weekend” kicks off her liberation and serves as the centerpiece to the album. It was celebrated widely when released, earning spots on many “best of” lists in 2017. In an interview with The Breakfast Club, she said, “I think it’s like taking the power back. Women just are supposed to cry and feel weird. Enjoy your life, focus on what’s important to you. It’s about being comfortable with yourself.” This is a crucial point, especially as it was received by many as defeatist or otherwise disheartened due to the down-tempo and minor key of the song. It can certainly come off as sad, but upon closer reads of her lyrics and interviews, the song is impactful because it acknowledges the validity of sleeping with multiple people at the same time and not having to feel bad about that. The song flies in the face of constructed and oppressive ideals that women shouldn’t be with too many men, and if they are, they should just “cry and feel weird.”
On the last few songs of the album, SZA continues the empowerment, extending it past the sexual time-sharing on “The Weekend” and bringing it to empathetic relationships as a whole, including the relationship she has with herself. Also in her interview with The Breakfast Club, she describes the title of the album as a signifier for knowing how to take control of her life. Too often, SZA explains, she lets others control her headspace, and now she’s only focusing on things she can take care of. To convey this idea, on “Pretty Little Birds” she sings, “I wanna fly with you / But my wings don’t spread like they used to.” She’s still seeking intimate relationships but has come to understand that she can’t extend herself emotionally the way she used to. They’ve gotta meet her halfway.
SZA is so important because of her steadfast confidence and willingness to establish boundaries when men cross her. Her message, along with the immense talent that has brought her worldwide recognition, is crucial because it moves the discourse around intimate relationships forward. Hopefully, the more people hear and take heed of her words, the more people will take a more critical view of their own relationships, a critical movement if we are to live in a society dedicated to justice and love.