WITH A DELICATE VOICE AND A HARD HEAD, SZA HAS SECURED A ROLE WITH THIS ERA’S DEFINITIVE HIP-HOP COLLECTIVE
“You can literally just ride your bikes with your friends all day, every day, for the whole summer. It’s a bored kid’s heaven. I was super bored, and I didn’t have anything to do, but there’s not even any trouble to get in to unless you’re like, getting high.”
This is SZA, the 23-year-old singer from Maplewood, New Jersey speaking about where she grew up. This same girl has been signed to Top Dawg Entertainment (home of Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul and the newly-initiated Isaiah Rashad) and her voice is causing serious reverberations in the hip-hop world. SZA’s journey to this point is fairly easy to follow but slightly harder to believe. Crack battled through delayed flights and dodgy phone-lines to talk about her ongoing ascent.
“I first met TDE by dropping them off clothes to wear”, she says of her serendipitous first break. “I think it was at Kendrick’s first show at Gramercy. My homegirl came with me and she was listening to this little horrible song I made. Punch (ie, Terrence Henderson, Top Dawg’s CEO) was like ‘Damn, what are you listening to so intently!? Give me the earphones’ and he starts saying ‘Your voice is really pretty, it’s really interesting’. I was like, damn! He was one of the first people outside my parents to hear my voice.” She continues, enthusiasm peaked. “It all came together at SXSW this past year because I didn’t have anywhere to stay and they took me in. Maybe a month after that I got a call and he was like ‘Can you pack your shit tonight?’ I said ‘I guess, can I bring my friend with me?’”. You could argue that this apparent obliviousness to age-old industry etiquette is part of what makes SZA such a breath of fresh air in a contrived, cut-throat landscape.
And SZA’s hip-hop phonebook stretches beyond the world of TDE. Her recent song Teen Spirit was crafted by WondaGurl – the 16-year-old who produced Crown for Jay Z and Travi$ Scott‘s Uptown. “I got told about her after I heard the beat and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s fucking crazy’. We’ve formed a super organic relationship, I still talk to her and she’s awesome.” SZA’s team make a point of not telling her who produces which track before playing it to her, on account of her acute musical awareness and obsession. As a music fanatic at heart, SZA has been as enthralled as the rest of us with the wealth of releases that have come out of 2013, despite being trapped in what she describes fondly as “a TDE bubble”. “I loved King Krule, I like Lorde a lot but other than that I’ve been listening to a lot of old stuff. I still love Animal Collective, I still love The Knife, I still love Fever Ray.”
In the year when twerk-pandemonium has relentlessly divided opinion about women in the music industry, SZA has a direct, firm attitude towards her position within TDE. “They treat everyone equally. We get yelled at equally, we have the same amount of expectations, nobody babies you just because you’re a girl. If I was with any other label, I might not have that freedom – the way I dress is the way I dress, I do my hair how I do my hair, I’m very hard-headed.” For the casual hip-hop listener, you’d presume being signed to a juggernaut label involves an AAA pass to the kind of crazy mansion parties you see in the videos (see: Young Money’s Bedrock). “There’s none of that! In one hand, of course you always want to see if that shit is really real but I have yet to experience it. I don’t party, so I don’t really know – I’ve just been hanging out in a TDE clubhouse all summer working.”
The future is seemingly unwritten for SZA, when we ask her about the next two parts of her S Z A EP trilogy she tells us, “I have no idea. I think I might just hurry up and make the album”. Either way, SZA could provide a remedy to a year of purposefully- controversial stunts and a distinct over-exposure to the debate of what women in music should or shouldn’t look like. The victory here is SZA’s voice, and how she weaves it through her glittery, melody driven sound. Even if the EP trilogy finished off her name, her sonic identity is yet to be truly discovered, and we seriously can’t wait to see the results.
– – – – – – – – – –
Words: Duncan Harrison