In the late winter of 1997, Texas songstress, Erykah Badu, helped usher in a new wave of R&B called neo-soul with her debut studio album Baduizm. Twenty years later, SZA dropped her debut studio album Ctrl a confessional body of work centered around modern love and trying to stay true to yourself in the Instagram era. When they released their freshman projects, they were both in their mid-to-late twenties, a time when many are still trying to find their place in the world as they navigate the turbulent waters of adulthood. Besides having to deal with the typical responsibilities of adulthood like securing a job and working endless hours at that job so that you will be able to pay your bills and save money for retirement, there are underlying emotional struggles that many have to put on the back burner. When you're young and trying to make space for yourself in the world, you often neglect the parts of yourself that need forms of nourishment that go beyond getting a good job and having a sufficient income.
SZA and Erykah touch on the struggles they have endured and explore the zeitgeist of their respective times, which aside from the advent of tech and digital media, aren't very different. When you take away the eighteen-year difference between the two, the twenty-year gap between their albums, and the heavy usage of social media, the themes they touch upon in their albums are very reflective of one another. Both are by black women trying to find love whether it be love from a partner, love from friends, love from the world, or simply love for themselves. They bare their souls in a manner that calls into question the ways of the world and why women, especially black women, are judged harshly and asked to prove our value to those who ignore our humanity. When artists like these two use their talents to vocalize the experiences of their communities, that's what makes the art even more heart-rending and beautiful.
SZA and Erykah's debuts are akin to diaries which they have allowed us to read and bask in. I see both albums as coming-of-age stories by two women in their mid-to-late twenties trying to cross the bridge between adolescence and young adulthood. As I said previously, both artists do a phenomenal job of detailing their perspectives and experiences in short time frames. Raw production allowed them to connect with themselves, their space, and their audiences better. Baduizm is a sonic hybrid of modern R&B and hip-hop with some jazz influences peppered throughout. Ctrl contains mixtures of alternative R&B, indie rock, and heavy amounts of trap. Erykah recruited artists such as producer Madukwu Chinwah and Philadelphia supergroup The Roots to set a warm, welcoming sonic presence. SZA discussed her stripped down approach to the album that retains a rich,soothing ambience. When you turn down all the reverb and all the plugins and all the stacks...you're left with just your voice. And your thoughts. And you kind of have to say something--- you don't have to say anything, but you have to mean it.
Badu tests the waters well with her lead single On & On. This is the moment when we are truly introduced to Badu, a bohemian queen with a lot of knowledge to gain and even more to offer to the world. She covers a wide scope of topics ranging from spirituality to the complexities of relationships. Her smooth delivery would put you in mind of rappers of the time like Nas, Andre 3000, and GZA of Wu-Tang Clan. Peace and blessings manifest with every lesson learned, If your knowledge were your wealth, then it would be well-earned, If we were made in his image then call us by our names, Most intellects do not believe in God but they fear us just the same.
SZA begins Ctrl with a conversation with her and her mother. That is my greatest fear, That ifâ¦ I lost control Or did not have control, things would just, you know...I would be...fatal. When the silvery guitar riff on Ctrl's opening track Supermodel begins, you can tell that you're about to be transported to another world. She pens an open letter to an old flame, describing her most crippling insecurities. She confesses to him that she slept with his friend while he was in Las Vegas on Valentine's Day. It will be the first time he hears about it, she said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. Much of this album relishes in a pattern stream of consciousness thoughts that work as melodic freestyles. It's amazing how candid she is in this first song alone not pulling the reins on anything she feels and wants to vocalize. SZA introduces one of the album's themes of validation as she croons, Leave me lonely for prettier women, You know I need too much attention for shit like that...Why can't I stay alone just by myself? Wish I was comfortable just with myself, But I need you, But I need you, But I need you...
While wanting love from her partner and friends, SZA yearns to have the virtue of self-love. Self-love and awareness are necessities that she lacks and tries to claim, as we hear in tracks like Garden (Say It Like That). We hear her questioning whether she deserves a type of love that is supportive and healthy. Need you for the old me, need you for my sanity, Need you to remind me where I come from, Can you remind me of my gravity? Ground me when I'm tumblin', spiralin', plummetin' down to Earth, You keep me down to Earth In an interview with Vevo, SZA says about the song, I wrote this as one of the older versions of me, but not that old, from the new me to the old me to someone that I needed for the old me.
SZA's Garden bears a striking thematic and raw sonic resemblance to Erykah's Otherside of The Game. In Otherside of the Game, we get to see a less assured side of Badu, one that's questioning the future of her relationship with her boyfriend. Whatcha gonna do when they come for you, Work ain't honest but it pays the bills, What we gonna do when they come for you, Gave me the life that I came to live. She tries to analyze the morality of his hustle as a drug dealer, describing him to us as a man whom she has the deepest affection for, yet can't continue to be with because of the situation he has put her and their unborn child in.â
The centerpieces of these albums are ironically very similar. In Next Lifetime and The Weekend both singers find themselves caught up in a love triangle or SZA's case , a love rectangle. The line My man is my man is your man heard itâs her man too, was the favored chorus during the summer of 2017, among SZA's various lyrics in the song detailing her complicated relationship with someone else's man. The narrator of the song was labeled as a side chick, but that wasn't the case at all. The song served as an anthem of female empowerment. What SZA wanted for her and the other two women were to abandon the idea that this man had to be the center of their existences when he was using all of them for reasons unknown. In Next Lifetime, Erykah wrestles with her feelings for someone who isn't her partner.
Towards the end of Baduizm, Badu slides into the second half of the album with a rousing reimagination of Atlantic Starr's 1983 single Touch A Four Leaf Clover entitled Four Leaf Clover. In the lyrics, she urges her partner to take a chance She substitutes the production norms of 80s R&B like euphoric synths and thick drum machines for a soft piano with a boom-bap-inspired beat. The change gave room for Badu to let the optimistic lyrics linger in the listener's ears while also allowing her to stay cohesive to the jazz-soul-hip-hop hybrid of the album.
Like Badu, SZA urged her partner to be hopeful for their love and to remain steadfast in it. In the song Pretty Little Birds, SZA weaves themes of escapism into her lyrics, giving her and her lover a glimpse into the idyllic romance that she longs for them to have. She uses mythical characters such as a phoenix and a golden goose to convey the optimism she still has despite what her and her partner have endured in their relationship.â
What doesnât kill you makes you stronger is what we're told so often. But what happens when our pain evolves into something worse than battle scars and thin resilience? We have had to mine our way through the pain and wear the mask as Paul Laurence Dunbar said so many years ago. It is the biggest form of survival that many of us know.
What these albums gave to the music world were beautifully designed mosaics that displayed the various ways society impacts how we as women view ourselves. When SZA describes her anxiety about getting older and trying to stay grounded during those twentysomethings, it's as if she is revealing the deepest secrets of many, myself included. There are rigid standards placed on women especially as we get older i.e. the outdated expectation for women to get married and have children before thirty comes around. In Certainly when Badu poses the question to her lover Who gave you permission to re-arrange me? or No Love where she pleads with her partner to explain where the love that brought them together went away to, its as if she had put into song the stories and struggles of many.
Looking at the albums holistically, I can tell there is a communal aspect of them that is subtle in some songs and very accentuated in others. Erykah cross-pollinates African fashions in her attire that hones in on her search to understand her roots while simultaneously combining her southern dialect with East Coast sensibilities in songwriting and production. SZA uses conversations with her, her mother, and her grandmother as guiding lights for the listener and herself as she tries to find purpose and meaning in her life. "Ctrl is a concept. I've lacked control my whole life and I think I've craved it my whole life." They utilize these mediums to seek answers to their existential problems like growing up (Prom, 20 Somethings) or trying to accept the woes of the world without becoming trapped in them (Drama). We find them at a place where they were constantly analyzing their lives in search of clarity. That clarity could come in the form of enlightenment that Erykah conveys in the early parts of her album. We cling to our egos and identities the way many of us clung to our parents. Releasing our hold on those things is the moment when our understanding increases.
Written By Alana Brown-Davis
Alana Brown-Davis is currently serving as a Set The Table Fellow for the 2022 school year. â" Set The Table aims to offer students personal and professional development along with hands on work experience through The Dinner Table's communications department. Assignments are usually in specific areas like social media, marketing and digital content production.