By now, SZA’s origin story has the ring of legend. After dropping out of college, she was working odd jobs, singing occasionally when she lent her voice to friends’ tracks or shows; she thought of it as “fuck[ing] around.” But in 2011, she was working for the streetwear company 10 Deep, which sponsored a Kendrick Lamar concert. When she took 10 Deep’s merch to the record executives of Lamar’s label, Top Dawg Entertainment, she brought along a friend, who was listening to SZA’s music in her headphones. Punch, the president of TDE, “snatched the headphones” and gave it a listen. He offered SZA studio time on the spot.
Over the next couple of years, SZA put out two EPs on SoundCloud. 2012’s See.SZA.Run is a slow, syrupy record full of grungy guitar and minor harmonies. Her honeyed falsetto sometimes rings through, but the lyrics are simple and stereotypical. Three of the EP’s seven songs — “Advil,” “Crack Dreams,” and “Once Upon a High” — compare love to drugs as their central metaphor.
But 2013’s S, intended to be the first installment of a trilogy titled S, Z, and A, bears early marks of what would later become SZA’s signature style. Its softer sound is matched by an unabashed yearning; the EP opens with “Castles,” on which SZA muses, “Wish I was prettier, a little, for ya / Maybe I’ll understand when I get older.” The frenetic current of sound underneath is a bit jarring — are those sleigh bells in the background? — but the wistfulness of this first line heralds the SZA to come, a vulnerable romantic trying to get a hold on her self-worth.
S also shows SZA tinkering with spoken samples, a technique that she would later deploy to great success on Ctrl. On “The Odyssey,” she samples a clip from the 1982 documentary All by Myself: The Eartha Kitt Story, in which Kitt refuses to compromise for love. Kitt’s voice is regal and precisely enunciated, and her old Hollywood lilt gives the sample a fairy-tale aura even as she spits, “Stupid! A man comes into my life and I have to compromise? You must think about that one again.” Kitt’s insistent independence makes her a perfect foil to SZA, who craves nurturing love.
SZA signed with TDE in 2013. She was the only woman on the label’s stacked lineup, which included Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, and Schoolboy Q. The next year, she put out Z, her first full-length album, which received a tepid critical response. Many listeners thought the songs overpowered the singer, and it’s true that SZA’s vocals seem buried underneath the heavy glitz of the production on Z. Later, SZA herself would laugh about this, admitting that when she listened to her past work, she thought, “Damn, girl, you are whispering!” But the more potent absence is of SZA’s interiority. On “Childs Play,” featuring a fresh-faced Chance the Rapper, SZA sings, “Memories keep playing back, all the nights we used to love / Just wondering how I used to was, how I used to was.” It’s a hollow line, even evasive. Pitchfork put it bluntly: “It’s … impossible to get a sense for who [SZA] is.”
But with 2017’s Ctrl, SZA emerged as a full-fledged singer who knew how she wanted to sound and what she wanted to say. Gone were the slurried instruments and humid reverb that muffled her voice in past work. In their place were crisp beats and melodic guitar, over which SZA unfurled long, luxurious phrases in a singular voice that roved from throaty to sweet.
And she wrote from an astonishingly personal perspective. Song after song, she gave voice to the hopeful, fearful limbo of a young woman caught in the crosshairs of hookup culture. Sometimes she sounded game for the necessary compartmentalization of casual sex, as on the buoyant “The Weekend,” which Vulture described as an ode to “time-sharing a man.” But she wasn’t afraid to admit that she craved a kinder intimacy than she’d yet been given. On “Garden (Say It Like Dat),” she mused, “You’ll never love me, but I / Believe you when you say it like that.” On the crushing “Drew Barrymore,” she wondered, “Is it warm enough for you inside me?” She sought reassurance that she was good enough; she rarely believed that she was.
It was a seismic shift for R&B. The year before, Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Rihanna’s Anti had dominated the charts with visions of defiant, all-powerful Black womanhood. Lemonade’s lead single, the anthemic “Formation,” is full of dismissals of Beyoncé’s haters and declarations of her own greatness. She chants, “All day, I slay,” and invites her “ladies” to do the same. On “Needed Me,” Rihanna smirks at the idea of ever coming in second to a man, warning, “But baby, don’t get it twisted / You was just another nigga on the hit list.” In 2016, tributes to Black womanhood emphasized being untouchable, savage, or bad. But SZA opened up a new wave.
Ctrl embraced a broader spectrum of personal storytelling. SZA knew how to own her selfishness and anxiety without demonizing herself, to confront a powerlessness that enriched rather than diminished her. It matched the moment. Issa Rae’s HBO show Insecure premiered the same year, with a similar eye toward illuminating the messy personal and professional lives of uncertain Black twentysomethings. Like SZA, Rae’s onscreen self wanted to love her friends and partners well, but got in her own way much of the time. Reflecting on the fresh perspective at the heart of Ctrl, Rae said the album could have been the soundtrack to the entire first season of her show.
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