SZA Is Trying to Save Herself
SZA has so much anxiety it’s coating her voice. The singer is fresh off an appearance on Saturday Night Live, where she performed “Blind,” a blunt, rap-sung song filled with frank lyrics such as “you’re still talking about babies and I’m still taking a Plan B” over an orchestral production.
On this Monday evening, though, she can mostly only muster an “I don’t know” to questions. It’s clear she’s not trying to be rude or difficult, she’s just... overwhelmed. Minutes before joining our call, SZA says, her heart was pounding. She was sweating. “I was just breathing and trying to get a second before I picked up the phone and I didn't get that. I just literally felt peak anxiety. And I was hoping that it wouldn’t bleed into this conversation, but I just really feel very...” Her voice trails off.
“I’m just maximum stressed and I’m trying not to fold,” she tells me, eventually. She needs a minute, just a second really, to breathe -- but her entire day has been nonstop. She says several times that she wants to “disappear and find a new identity.” Her label already has the album; maybe they won’t notice if she just goes ghost and returns to being Solána Rowe, the normal girl born in St. Louis and raised in Maplewood, New Jersey, instead of the superstar SZA.
They would absolutely notice. And so would everyone else. Even if SZA is approaching it anxiously, this is her album release week. It’s the week fans have been waiting five years for. Since the 2017 release of CTRL, millennial women -- especially Black ones -- have looked to the singer as a mirror of themselves, reflecting the insecurities, angst and uncertainties that arise from settling into adulthood in the digital age.
In the time since SZA released a full-length project, she's never fully disappeared; 2021 saw her deliver a series of features alongside artists such as Summer Walker (“No Love”) and Doja Cat (“Kiss Me More”), the latter of which garnered the pair a 2022 Grammy for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. It was SZA’s first Grammy award, despite receiving 14 nominations over a five-year period. In this time, she also released a number of songs without fanfare as a way to scratch her artistic itch and please fans. Two such singles were “I Hate U” and “Shirt,” the latter of which made it to her new sophomore album, SOS (out on December 9th via Top Dawg Entertainment/RCA).
If CTRL was for the twenty-somethings, SOS is for the thirty-somethings, leaning into both the confidence and the continued uneasiness of the decade with the same unflinching lens that fans have come to expect from SZA.
It’s also the singer’s most daring project, boldly pushing back against the assertion that she’s strictly in the R&B lane. “I'm so tired of being pegged as [an] R&B artist,” SZA says. “I feel like that's super disrespectful, because people are just like, ‘Oh, ‘cause you're Black, this is what you have to be' -- like, put in a box. And I hate that. With songs on this album, it's supposed to help round out the picture and the story.”
”I LOVE MAKING
BLACK MUSIC, PERIOD.
IS JUST FULL
”I LOVE MAKING
BLACK MUSIC, PERIOD.
IS JUST FULL
Perhaps her ongoing concerns have started to be addressed. After we talk, while the album is categorized as R&B/Soul on Apple Music, it’s promoted in both the R&B and Pop categories on the streaming platform, as well as on Spotify.
“It’s very lazy to just throw me in the box of R&B,” she reiterates. “I love making Black music, period. Something that is just full of energy. Black music doesn’t have to just be R&B. We started rock ‘n’ roll. Why can’t we just be expansive and not reductive?”
Where SOS signals artistic growth, it also finds SZA still fighting to be heard and have control over her life and identity in many ways. She’s not exactly hiding it with the album’s title and artwork, which features the singer suspended over the deep blue sea. Staring out across the water while sitting atop a diving board, her body is small in comparison, almost swallowed by the vastness of the ocean in the photo. In recent interviews, SZA has said she was trying to capture the isolation Princess Diana must’ve felt in a similar photo. As a piece of art, the photograph is a stunning image, but it’s admittedly a bit depressing when you realize it’s a depiction of how she seems to feel in her real life... at least in this moment.
The biggest appeal of SZA has always been her ability to say the quiet parts out loud. It’s her willingness to speak her truth, unflinching and absolutely insistent we bear witness. It’s an impressive feat for a Black woman in general, but as Terrence “Punch” Henderson, SZA's manager and president of Top Dawg Entertainment says, it’s a quality that her music in particular has always possessed.
Henderson first met SZA in 2011 during an industry event where she was selling t-shirts. “She didn’t have any of my sizes,” he says of the merch he was interested in. He got her information so they could meet the next day in his hotel lobby. “She brought her friend and her friend was listening to something on her earphones and wasn’t paying us any attention. I’m like, ‘Yo, what are you listening to? It’s gotta be amazing.’ She’s like, ‘This is her,’ and gestures towards SZA.” It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that SZA wasn’t using the moment to promote her own music. She was simply there to deliver some merch.
“[SZA’s friend] played it for me and what stood out immediately was her voice. It was so distinctive,” he recalls. “Her melody choice and tone... it was different from anything I had heard at the time. She approached singing as an emcee would.”
Songwriter and producer ThankGod4Cody, a longtime collaborator of SZA who has credits on seven SOS tracks, says he’s often seen her create magic through freestyling in the studio. This is how she created “I Hate U,” the viral, stream-of-conscious song about the tug-and-pull of a toxic relationship. “She just heard the beat, told me to step out and went in,” Cody says. “That was done in about 20 minutes.”
“She’s kind of like a rapper,” songwriter and producer Benny Blanco adds in a separate phone call. “Sometimes you really don’t know what’s happening. It’ll look like she’s just scrolling Instagram or Twitter and then she’s like, ‘OK, I got it.’ And I’m like, ‘What? When did it happen?’ It’s so crazy. Sometimes she just gets on the mic and it comes right out.” Blanco, who says he spent weeks recording with the singer at his home -- greeting her with food such as homemade lasagna and banana pudding -- says he’s happy fans get to hear her legitimately rap on several songs on the album.
SZA pushes this freestyle brand of lyricism throughout the rest of SOS, delivering uncomfortably vulnerable and deliciously crass lyrics over a variety of productions. There’s a four-track run halfway through SOS that best showcases how experimental this album is as a whole. She raps boastfully of her desirability on “Smoking on My Ex Pack,” sings with indie hero Phoebe Bridgers about anxiety in the digital age, offers a punk-rock take on rebound sex on “F2F” (a song that can be described as Avril Lavigne and FeFe Dobson-meets-City Girls), and delivers one of the most vulnerable ballads of her career with “Nobody Gets Me.” Her lyrics have always expertly blended a stream-of-conscious style with intimate ruminations, but this display of versatility is a deliberate attempt by someone known by many as a forerunner in mainstream R&B to break away from what she deems an unfair label.
“I think she took a lot of risks on this album and did things that people were naive and didn’t think she could get away with,” Blanco says. “She can do everything. She can do rock music, she can do pop music. She can do country music. There’s nothing stopping her. Ever.”
Still, SZA also wants to be clear she’s not setting out to disrespect R&B as a genre. “I think there are certain people who love making R&B and who do it so well, like Summer Walker, or who make soul music and do it so very well, like Ari Lennox,” SZA says. “That’s what they want. But that’s not my goal.”
Dating back to her EPs, from 2012’s independently-released See.SZA.Run to 2014’s Z under TDE, SZA has been skirting traditions of the type of music a Black woman is supposed to make. From the synth-pop dance track “Julia” to the psychedelic song “Sweet November” on Z, the singer has experimented with various productions even as the themes in her lyrics remain a constant thread throughout her discography.
On SOS, she enlists a few guests to help her with this. She was a longtime fan of Phoebe Bridgers before the two collaborated on “Ghost in the Machine.” “We had been playing festivals together recently, but [our sets were] at the same time so we never got to meet,” SZA says. The two eventually connected through DMs on social media. Elsewhere on the album, a previously-unreleased Ol' Dirty Bastard verse is used on the album’s final track “Forgiveless” after SZA’s team discovered it in a forthcoming documentary. “I thought it was so crazy because I tried to find a feature for that song and no one responded in time,” SZA says, whose stage name was inspired by the supreme alphabet and Wu-Tang’s RZA. “It turns out ODB just sounded the coolest before I could even think about anything else.”
Twenty-three songs is a generous amount for an album, even by today’s streaming standards. But SZA insists SOS doesn’t even feature all of the songs she was hoping to include. Since her last release years ago, she’s recorded hundreds of songs. The whimsical, folksy “Joni,” for example, was released online last year but didn’t make the album, something SZA blames Punch for (“He just has a very strong opinion about curation”) before confirming that there will be a deluxe edition of the album that will likely include some songs that didn’t make the original cut.
There are a number of things that have SZA on edge when I speak with her, most of them revolving around the label politics that reach a fever pitch during the final days leading up to a major project’s release. She stopped smoking about a year ago, believing it was the source of her night terrors, so now everything is clearer. Noisier, even. “Being present is hard and scary,” she says.
Hours before we talk, YouTube’s algorithm recommends I listen to a snippet of the SOS ballad “Nobody Gets Me” on SZA’s channel. Over an acoustic guitar, she sings, “Only like myself when I’m with you, nobody gets me, you do.” An audio-only upload that’s less than 30 seconds, it’s not much, but it’s exactly the type of melodic melodrama fans crave from the singer. “Somebody sedate me,” I text a group chat along with a link to the teaser, quoting a popular meme from Grey’s Anatomy.
SZA, it turns out, feels similarly as a result of the YouTube video, albeit for entirely different reasons. According to her, her team published it without her knowledge days ahead of when she was told the music video was scheduled to debut the song. “I woke up and I was like... ‘Oh, OK.’ I’ve just been acting like I didn’t see it,” she tells me with an uncomfortable laugh.
Decisions like this, SZA admits, make her feel powerless. “It just makes you feel like nobody really cares about what you want specifically, and they think they know what's best for you,” she says, speaking in second person. “It’s OK to have ideas about what’s best for me but I’d really love it if we could be equal partners and have a discussion.”
I ask SZA who she calls on when she’s feeling this way. Is there an artist or someone within the industry who can help her navigate life as a celebrity, as an artist -- as a human? “I talk to God and my mom a lot,” she says after a long pause.
“But my mom is also really stressful sometimes,” she quickly adds. “She’ll be like, ‘When is your album coming out? Are you going to stick to your deadline?’ Sometimes [I don’t talk to anybody] and then it’ll just get worse and worse and worse...”
Although an anxious SZA tells me earlier in the week she’s thinking about skipping her album release party in Los Angeles, Blanco confirms he hosted her at his home Thursday night to celebrate the album dropping at midnight. “We were just taking the album in, eating some food and drinking some liquor,” he says. “We had to drag her out.”
Speaking with SZA, I get the impression that she absolutely means what she says, even if she feels a way that’s entirely contradictory a half hour later. It’s her ability to tap into this that makes songs such as “I Hate U” so catchy and relatable (“I be so sick of you n****s,” she says in one bar before changing completely and singing, “I be so bored with myself, can you come and fuck me?” a few lines later).
It makes for great music, but I wonder what it’s like to work with someone like this. I ask Punch, who has had a publicly tumultuous relationship with SZA over the 11 years they’ve known each other. In my chat with her, most of her frustration about release week is pointed at him. “Even if she’s wrong, it’s still honest. It’s still true [to her]. I know those feelings come from a place of passion, wanting to do well, and anxiety. I get the root of where everything comes from,” he says. “If you take that away, I’m not sure if the art would be the same.”
He’s probably right. It’s the reason fans cheered when Adele got divorced or suggest that Mary J. Blige makes better music when she’s experiencing hardship. The problem sometimes with being an artist whose brand centers on vulnerability is that it’s quite lucrative to display your suffering. SZA has thoughts on this, too. “You would think that after being vulnerable, people would treat you better, or feel like they knew you better, but they don't,” she says. “But it has nothing to do with other people. It's just me being me and the type of music I like to make.”
”YOU WOULD THINK
THAT AFTER BEING
WOULD TREAT YOU
”YOU WOULD THINK
THAT AFTER BEING
WOULD TREAT YOU
She contradicts herself again a few minutes later. Being on stage, she accepts, is a time when it might have something to do with other people after all. “I love touring. Touring is healing. That's it,” she says. While there’s nothing on the books yet for 2023 other than a sole festival date, it’s clear SZA is ready to get back out there. “It definitely reminds you that people love you and not everybody is a reflection of the Internet that's just trying to troll you,” she says. “Like even if some of those people are people who troll you, they are fans. No one ever pays for a ticket to treat me like shit. So that's a blessing.”
After SOS is released, an old quote from 2020, in which SZA says the follow up to CTRL will be her last album, goes viral. That was two years ago -- before fans got to hear the new music and once again celebrate the singer for making them feel seen even when she often felt invisible herself -- but it might just become true.
“I'm gonna disappear, definitely, for as long as I can,” SZA asserts when asked about her post-SOS-release-week plans. “We kinda knocked it out,” she adds of a music video she’d filmed the day before. “I need to shoot as many videos as I can, so I can disappear for longer.”
We’ll see how SZA feels in, say, five more years. For now, all we can do is promise to listen.
Live photos by Travis Ball, Pooneh Ghana for Austin City Limits,
and Jemal Countess for Global Citizen Festival
Studio photos by Daniel Sannwald and Jacob Webster
Illustration by Steven Fiche