By Shannon Carlin
Being a part of Top Dawg Entertainment means you’re under a microscope, especially if you’re the label’s first female signee.
“People want to know if you’re worthy of being on TDE.”
That’s SZA, The First Lady of TDE. She also has to worry about the unfair comparisons made between her and the rest of the label’s roster, which includes Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul. “I read like a review and they were comparing me to rappers and I was like, ‘I don’t rap at all or do hip-hop,'” she said laughing.
SZA does her own thing. Her 10-track EP, Z, is an original mix of what she calls “alt-R&B” that has her waxing nostalgic about ripping heads off her sister’s Barbie dolls on the Chance the Rapper-assisted track, “Child’s Play” and comparing the smell of a boyfriends skin to Brussels sprouts on opener “UR.”
“Have you ever like laid in your bed with your dude for like multiple days…and you really like him, but the busted thing is he’s really dirty?” she asked. “That’s where that line came from. It’s kind of like this weird Brussels sprout-y, fart, wet smell. It’s weird and kind of gross, but it’s awesome.”
The EP also features guest spots from her TDE compatriots Isaiah Rashad on “Warm Winds” — her favorite track to listen to — and Kendrick on “Babylon.” Of course, the ability to call Kendrick into the studio no questions asked is one of the perks of being on TDE. A perk she willingly admits outweighs any of the drawbacks she previously mentioned.
SZA—real name, Solana Rowe—is currently holed up in a house in California that she affectionately refers to as the “TDE Clubhouse.” It’s the place where everyone on the label lives while they’re working on their respective albums. “You get to grow as a family and get to know each other,” she said. There are arguments, but SZA says she personally has only fought once or twice with Isaiah, who also happens to be her closest friend in the TDE crew. Both times were over the ownership of a certain beat. “He’s a beat brat.”
The close quarters also allow each of them to call one another into the studio to lay down a verse on short notice. SZA says Ab-Soul will sometimes ask them to come in and record one word just because he “likes the way it sounds coming out of that person’s mouth specifically.”
As of right now, SZA is hard at work on the follow-up to her EP, simply called, A. “A is for album,” she joked about the name of her official full length debut. Though SZA isn’t quite ready to divulge the details of her upcoming release, she did say Yukumi Nagano from Little Dragon sent her a few songs that are the “most beautiful s–t” she’s ever heard in her whole life. Though she might be just a wee bit bias.
“I love her so much, I would literally make an entire album as an ode to her,” SZA said laughing. “It’s crazy, I’m like obsessed with her and I think she’s probably scared of me at this point.”
Last month, SZA opened for Coldplay at New York’s Beacon Theatre, an honor she still can’t quite wrap her mind around. “I can’t even believe that was an opportunity or an option,” she said. “I don’t know why you would waste an opening slot on me.” But hours before she even took the stage, she got a chance to go into the studio with the band’s frontman, Chris Martin. She wouldn’t confirm or deny whether those songs they recorded would end up on her album, but she did say Martin was “very kind and it was one of the best days of my life.”
It was Martin’s ex, Gwyneth Paltrow who turned him onto the singer’s track, “Julia” after putting it on a playlist for Jay Z’s website, Life+Times this past March. That song was actually written about a different actress: Julia Roberts. “She never feels like this weird unattainable being where you feel like, ‘Oh I’ll never be like Julia Roberts,'” SZA explained. “She’s so stunning, but she has her goofy laugh and she’s like kind of awkwardly tall. I love her.”
SZA’s exotic look has been a source of discussion ever since she self-released her first EP See.SZA.Run in 2012. But the singer — who grew up a strict Muslim in New Jersey wearing a hijab into her teens — has never felt like she fit the mainstream’s idea of what is beautiful. “I’ve always felt like Skipper,” SZA said, referring to Barbie’s kid sister. “I never felt like Barbie.”
As she’s gotten older though, she says she feels more comfortable in her skin, and she wants others to feel the same way. “I’m always going to look the way I look. I’m always going to dress the way I dress. My hair will never look better straight than it does curly. And I’m just me,” she said. “You have to just accept that and then you can move forward and be like, ‘Now, how do I express this to other people so that they can get it?'”
It’s the same approach SZA is taking with her new album. She said she was “winging it” with Z and that she wants to be even more honest with her debut. “I think I left off a couple of things that will go on my actual album.”
She notes that her lyrics will still have the childlike whimsy of her previous one, but her main objective with A is to make something that has her connecting with a wider audience. “The goal is for it to touch everyone, but I still don’t know if it will be applicable to the masses,” SZA said. “There’s always the possibility where people will be like, ‘Wait, where’s Demi Lovato?’”