After SZA created the drums-drenched, reggae-tinged song Consideration, she thought she had finally found the sound of her debut album. But there was one problem: Rihanna heard the song and wanted it.
“And I’m just like, ‘It has a video. I shot a video already to it. It’s coming out on Wednesday. That was going to be the first song to prep the album,’” SZA recalled in a recent interview.
Rihanna kept SZA as a featured artist on the track, which opens her critically acclaimed Anti album, released last year. And while SZA said recording with the pop star “was a learning experience, it was just dope” — as for her own project? She felt lost. She cried like a baby. She was devastated. She had never given away something she cared so much about.
“I was crying [and thinking], ‘I’ll never make anything better,’” said SZA, now 28. “And Kendrick [Lamar] was like, ‘Well, this is what separates great people. Because great people make better things than that.’”
SZA proved herself to be great — and also proved her earlier prediction wrong.
The songs that make up Ctrl, her major-label debut released in June nominated for five Grammy Awards, have resonated with fans around the world, making SZA both a critical darling and a commercial success. The album is at the forefront of the alternative R&B movement, with SZA earning praise for her vocal delivery and direct lyrics that both female and male fans vibe to.
“My favourite game to play at her shows is finding the tough guy, the straight dude who doesn’t want to show no emotion, and as soon as his song comes on, he loses his mind,” said Terrence “Punch” Henderson, the co-president of independent record label Top Dawg Entertainment, home to SZA and Lamar.
“She’s the voice of this generation right now,” he added. “The words she’s saying is honest and raw [and] she’s speaking for these girls and also these guys.”
On some of her songs, SZA fires off her lyrics more like a rapper than a singer — switching topics quickly as she talks about having sex, failed relationships, persevering in life and if being herself is enough.
“I’m so ashamed of myself think I need therapy,” she even sings on Normal Girl.
The hit The Weekend is about sharing a boyfriend and SZA wonders if her body type is enough for her lover on Garden (Say It Like Dat). She asks for “another Valium” on Love Galore, where she also sings, “Why you bother me when you know you got a woman?”
Issa Rae was such a fan that the actress and producer used much of Ctrl in the second season of her acclaimed comedy series Insecure on HBO.
“SZA’s album is so good and just even thematically for season two, it’s so odd that we could literally put the whole album in,” said Rae. “If I get a cut of an episode and the music isn’t right, it takes me out of it. I’ll be like, ‘This episode is trash.’ [Music] really guides so much of the feel of the show and it has to be perfect.”
Ctrl, which has achieved gold status, has launched two platinum singles with Love Galore and The Weekend, recently remixed by Calvin Harris. The project was named the No 1 album of the year by several critics, including Time, Vice, New York Daily News and The Associated Press; it was ranked No 2 by the New York Times, NPR, Pitchfork and Billboard.
The success makes SZA, who appeared in an ad for Rihanna’s ultra-successful Fenty make-up line, the belle of the Grammys — she’s the most nominated female act.
“You know what’s crazy? I feel like you’re never as good as people say you are. And you’re never as bad as people say you are. So, it’s like, you just gotta take it like with a grain of salt. Like, it’s an experience. A responsibility more so. I think it’s like a knock on the head. Like, you have a responsibility, you have a purpose, so it’s like, uh, get to work and focus,” she said.
SZA’s nominations include best new artist and best urban contemporary album for Ctrl. Three of her songs also earned nominations — the Travis Scott-assisted Love Galore (best rap/sung performance); the fan-favourite The Weekend (best R&B performance); and album opener Supermodel (best R&B song).
But music didn’t almost happen for SZA, born Solana Rowe in St. Louis but raised in New Jersey.
“I had no idea. I just really wanted to be a scientist or just, like, do something like a gymnast... Then I wanted to be in fashion marketing. I really wanted an office, badly. Needed an office. Needed a corner. Needed, like, the wood grain. Needed the good view. Needed the long lunch. Like, I needed all that,” she said. “I just wanted to wear power suits. And like, you know, hair slick, skin immaculate. Like, you know, you always crave what’s the hardest for you to attain.”
“So the music thing I just stumbled on, that was not my plan at all,” she added. “I fought this hard. Like, I fought this whole process so hard. I’m even fighting it now... But it’s getting easier... I’m accepting. I’m accepting where I am. And this is true direction.”
Punch first met the big-haired SZA in 2011 at a Lamar show in New York. SZA was helping sell merchandise but they didn’t have his size. When she arrived in the lobby of Punch’s hotel to bring him clothes, he overheard the music blasting out of headphones of SZA’s friend.
It was SZA’s song.
“SZA got all embarrassed. She wasn’t going to say anything about singing,” said Punch, who co-wrote four songs on Ctrl and is nominated alongside the singer for best R&B song. “I heard her voice and her voice was so distinctive, and then I heard what she was actually saying. I’m like, ‘Yo, she is like a lyricist.’”
That song was one of the first SZA recorded. They kept in touch, she let him listen to more songs and he would give her advice. After two years, she asked Punch to manage her.
“We really talked about it seriously and here we are,” he said.
SZA, who recently won two Soul Train Awards and is nominated for four NAACP Image Awards, is now looking ahead to the Grammys. She plans on bringing her grandmother to the event, to be held in New York City on January 28.
“She’s getting her outfit ready,” SZA said of her grandmother, who lives in St. Louis and is heard giving feisty advice and words of encouragement to SZA, along with the singer’s mother, throughout the “Ctrl” album.
“She’s 90, and this is the one time that the Grammys is near my hometown,” she said. “I’m thankful.”