SZA Wished to be 'Normal,' But Like This Writer, She Did Much Better
“Who was popular in high school?” asked SZA at The Novo Theater on a Monday night in September. “I fuckin’ dare you to raise your hand.” Essentially, the New Jersey singer is living the best possible outcome those of us who fell shy of being hot jocks or homecoming queens in our formative years.
Her debut studio album Ctrl is an audio journal chronicling the thoughts and feelings of a young woman who spent the bulk of her young life wondering why she wasn’t enough—cool enough, beautiful (and bootyful) enough, confident enough—to be like the popular folk she likely harbored both jealousy and envy for.
When SZA posed that question, which confirmed that her audience is compiled of people who once felt like outcasts (and maybe still do), it reaffirmed why I connect to her music. To be honest, there’s a sense of embarrassment that comes with being a adult male with a strong appreciation for an album like Ctrl. Imagine pulling up next to me—a 6’5 Black dude—vibing out to SZA’s album-opener “Supermodel.” Here’s a sample of its lyrics, where she pines for the affection of a man she’d have to be unlike herself to get:
“[You] Leave me lonely for prettier women
You know I need too much attention for shit like that
You know you wrong for shit like that
I could be your supermodel if you believe…”
I know, seeing me enjoy that song in your mind’s eye seems more like the makings of a hilarious commercial because of the supposed juxtaposition of masculinity and sheer fragility. But nah, it’s real shit. I connect with that song and several on the album that relate to that sentiment and I’m not ashamed to say it.
I often use the term “Man-mix.” It’s when you hear a song sung from the perspective of a woman and remix portions of it so that it’s possible to sing it as a heterosexual male. After SZA asked the aforementioned question, she began singing “Normal Girl,” a track I love with lyrics like:
“I wanna be the type of girl you take home to your mama
The type of girl, I know your fellas would be proud of
Be proud of, be proud of, be proud of…
I wish I was a normal girl, oh my
How do I be? How do I be a lady?
Normal girl, oh
I wish I was a normal girl
I'll never be, no, never be…”
Replace “girl” with “guy.” Replace “fellas” with “girls.” Replace “lady” with “man.” Now we’re cooking. That’s me. That’s how I used to feel!
At some of its greatest points, tracks on Ctrl are a precise fit for ‘80s and early ‘90s coming of age films and television shows. I can imagine Molly Rigwald’s Andie in Pretty in Pink (maybe I see myself as a Duckie?) or imagine Cree Summers’ Freddie Brooks from A Different World having it play in her dorm room (I think Kadeem Hardison’s Dwayne Wade would be a SZA fan, too) singing to “Normal Girl.”
Before performing “Prom,” a track about not growing and experiencing life at the same pace as her peers, SZA admitted that she didn’t attend the biggest teenage ball of them all. I attended my prom in spring 2003, alone. The highlight being when Kourtnie M. said "Come on, Brad" during the last song of the party and we slow-danced. The lowlight was when I got lost on the solo drive home after in my parents' Navigator and pulled over at a Shell gas station to ask for directions and having to answer the cashier's enthusiastic, "Where are you headed now? Afterparty?" with "To bed."
For those who didn’t binge on SZA interviews during her press run when her album dropped, she has battled with weight issues and actually only became a singer because her rapper brother asked her to give it a shot while he was recording his mixtape. She doesn’t have the sheen or polish of some destined-for-the-spotlight wunderkind or the snobbishness of entitled newbie.
SZA’s an unlikely hero. I doubt she was a ever a full-on dweeb back in high school. But like me, I reckon she would have preferred to have been more back then, in the in crowd. So to see her on stage at The Novo with her abs exposed, fishnet stockings hiked up to her belly button, a sports bra sitting up top and red hair bouncing as she danced, it seemed like a happy ending to a Revenge of the Nerds-like story. The second string side chick has become the main—a star girl.
It’s interesting to see how hurts from the teen and tweenage years still reveal themselves, even when you’ve bloomed into a self you love. The concert felt like a support group for 2000-plus young adults recovering ugly duckling syndrome—me included. We’re no longer too scared to express ourselves. We’re not hiding anymore. At the end of “Normal Girl,” SZA sings:
"This time next year I'll be livin' so good
Won't remember your name, I swear
Livin' so good, livin' so good, livin' so good."
It’s anybody’s guess how long she’s been wishing on a star and manifesting the day those words would ring true. But it’s nice to see they eventually actually happened. Life seems to be pretty sweet for her now. “Love Galore” and “The Weekend” earned SZA her first platinum plaques (the latter just became her first No. 1 track on Billboard's Hot R&B Songs Chart).
Ctrl is a critically acclaimed LP. She’s a leading contender at the upcoming Grammys, with nominations for Best R&B performance, Best Rap/Sung Performance, Best R&B Song, Best Urban Contemporary Album, and Best New Artist. And she’s buds with arguably the biggest rapper out right now, TDE label mate Kendrick Lamar, who she brought out to perform his “Doves in the Wind” verse. So it seems like we both found our way to the cool kids’ table.
In March I married my wife. She’s a Persian hottie. That, along with a heaping amount of self-assurance gathered since graduating high school in '03, professional success and a gym membership have afforded me a level of confidence that I’ve never known to be higher.
Seeing SZA win in 2017 year was a joy. What’s the fun in being normal when you can be yourself? Just ask her.
Written by Brad Wete