Getting Ready with H.E.R. and SZA

Does getting-ready music define the mood or does the mood define getting-ready music? Either way, it undeniably lays the foundation for the night. In college, I aimed for hype; as I got older, I leaned into serenity. But through it all, sultry R&B has been my constant: think Miguel’s “coffee,” Usher’s “Crash,” Kelly Rowland’s “Motivation,” or Rihanna’s entire ANTI album. I gravitate to the songs emitting an enticingly dusky desire that crackles with possibility. They are, in the words of Gen Z, a vibe.

For the past three years, I haven’t had much occasion to go out so there was even less occasion to get ready. It’s been hardest these past eight months thanks to long covid. In that interim, my getting-ready soundtrack gathered a thick layer of metaphorical dust. I started to forget what it used to be and feel like.

I got my first taste of the old way recently when I traveled to New Orleans for a brief catch-up. In the lead-up to that trip, I was anxiously unsure how much—or even what—I’d be able to do in the heat (my biggest trigger), but to my great surprise, my body and energy and stamina all steadied and I got to experience once again the pleasures and brimming possibilities of getting ready for an evening of unknowns. Oh, how I’d missed the ritual: the anticipation, the primping, the finishing touches, the music. It was like slipping into a favorite dress I’d unwittingly abandoned to the back of my closet. It felt glorious.

On my last night, I had plans to meet up with an old flame. We hadn’t seen each other in seven years and I felt the allure of spending time with him again. The pleasure of his company is a palpable thing. Still, I felt weighted by change. Going through the pandemic, a difficult long-term relationship, and long covid shifted my capacity for connection, as I wrote about earlier this year. It all feels a bit fragile, and I’ve been reticent to throw myself into experiences because for months now experiences have made me crash. Even though my health has been trending in the right direction lately, I’m constantly negotiating what it means to be a body in public—and the learning curve remains steep.

As I set about getting ready that night, I felt the creep of those intervening years. I couldn’t easily shed that weight simply because the promise of a sweet night loomed large. My soundtrack reflected as much: H.E.R.‘s “Damage” and SZA‘s “Seek & Destroy” ended up on repeat. They sound like sexy affairs on the surface, but there’s a note of pain that ripples along both.

On “Damage,” love isn’t so pure as it once felt—reality has entered the frame. It begins with breathy, brass-tinged synths before the entire affair shifts and deeper bass infuses the track. Loving someone also invites the possibility of being hurt, and H.E.R. acknowledges those odds in the chorus: “‘Cause with me, know you could do damage.”

Throughout the song, H.E.R. parallels what love purports to be and what it can often become. The fantasy of those heady first encounters sits alongside the actuality of how they can warp. “Holding me tight/ Loving me right/ Giving me life/ All night/ You could be,” she sings at first, before repeating the last phrase and illustrating the duality of love. “(You could be)/ Telling me lies/ Making me cry/ Wasting my time/ The whole time/ So just be/ Careful what you take for granted, yeah.” It’s a deeply sexy—yet brutally honest—song.

SZA’s song “Seek & Destroy,” off her new album SOS, starts with an eerily ominous synth that builds into a resounding, pacing bass before she unleashes a strained confession: “You pushed me past my own capacity, boy/ Permission to crash, collecting damages, boy.” The song takes place in the aftermath, once “all missiles deployed,” and SZA’s voice reflects the exhaustion of having survived total annihilation.

Sitting in the crater of that relationship, she reflects on the part she played. Pushed to her limits, she didn’t just buck the bonds of her connection, she went nuclear. “Now that I’ve ruined everything, I’m so fucking free/ Now that I’ve ruined everything, keep it all for me/ Now that I’ve ruined everything, space is all I need,” she sings. The track is a twisted, seductive take on sultry R&B, and I found it intoxicating.

Once I was ready to go that night, I took my headphones and sat outside in the soft evening light, playing each song one more time while I waited to get picked up. A light breeze brushed against my cheek and rustled the trees along the street. Against the sonorous tracks and the wounds they depicted, a fluttering magic unfolded around me. There it was suddenly: a jolt of pleasure running alongside the pain.