SZA has always been alternative—you just weren’t listening
SZA IS READY FOR HER PAM GRIER MOMENT, except instead of relocating from Hollywood to a ranch in Colorado, she’s got her heart set on Hawaii. “It’s either that or move to a National Park in Portland or some shit… We’ll see.” While speaking on Zoom with the screen turned off might seem like a closed-off move, the singer-songwriter couldn’t be more blunt, revealing that she needs to find a new place to live ASAP before her lease is up. But instead of staying within the Los Angeles orbit like everyone else in the industry — or in her specific case, Malibu — SZA is considering somewhere even more secluded where she can just be.
Naturally, SZA has had a flurry of anxious thoughts and insecurities filling her head lately. Most recently, she’s been recovering from the spectacle that is the Grammy Awards — she presented Bad Bunny with his trophy for Best Música Urbana Album, and it was overwhelming, to say the least. “I was really freaking out about announcing,” SZA admits. “I wasn’t even performing or anything, and [backstage] I was like, ‘Wow, I could never perform because I’m gonna lose it just walking out with a piece of fucking paper.’ I was shaking like, ‘I’m gonna pass out, no deadass.’ And then it subsided as I got on there and accepted what it was.”
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But the Grammy stage wasn’t unfamiliar territory for SZA. Last year, she and Doja Cat won a Grammy for “Kiss Me More” in the Best Pop/Duo Performance category. But if you ask SZA’s parents, being inducted into her high school’s Hall of Fame alongside icons like Lauryn Hill is honestly more impactful than receiving 15 Grammy nominations. “I hate being perceived,” SZA confesses. There’s something especially anxiety-inducing about the process of getting “red carpet ready” for a sea of cameras to swallow her up, arguably the worst part of the job. No matter how many awards shows, ceremonies or premieres she attends, her confidence and self-esteem will always be tested.
[Photo by Daniel Prakopcyk]
LONG BEFORE SZA WAS RECOGNIZED as a superstar by her peers, she was known as Solána Imani Rowe, just another girl from the suburbs of Maplewood, New Jersey full of hopes and dreams. At the beginning of our call, she compliments my avatar, which depicts a Black version of Debbie from The Wild Thornberrys, an animated TV series that aired on Nickelodeon from 1998 to 2004 — I tell her how people in the Twitter thread that I pulled it from viewed her as the Black Debbie, a comparison that she surprisingly disagrees with. “I’m more Eliza Thornberry than her sister because she was so cool and pretty,” SZA insists. “Eliza was being strange, and her family was always stressed by it… That was me.” Back then, she wasn’t remotely aware that she was destined for greatness, but the signs were always there amid all the twists, turns, bumps and forks in the road.
The college dropout pivoted from aspiring marine biologist to bartender to fashion intern and eventually became the first woman signed to Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE). From there, she rolled out a series of EPs (See.SZA.Run, S and Z), which saw collaborations with Felix Snow, Chance The Rapper and Isaiah Rashad. Although the projects landed considerably favorable coverage on indie music blogs, nothing seemed to reach the mainstream. At least, that was until 2017 when the somber single “Drew Barrymore” dropped and transformed the entire course of her career. The song is practically a modern-day meme except instead of “They don’t know I’m ____” as the punchline, SZA asks, “Is it warm enough for you inside me, me, me, me?”
The release of her 2017 album, Ctrl, just amplified things. There’s no downplaying its magnitude; the record was a cultural reset that earned SZA high praise from every stretch of the internet in 2017. Since then, SZA has become a powerful voice for Black women especially — she has this ability to tap into a collective stream of consciousness and speak her truth — and the outpouring of support she receives in return is not taken for granted. “I’m grateful that they even see themselves in any part of me,” SZA explains. “Sometimes I feel like I’m in a vacuum and I’m by myself, but when Black women relate, it makes me feel like, ‘OK, these experiences are just our experiences, and there’s nothing wrong with me specifically.’ In fact, it’s just as comforting to me as it is to them. Like, we’re all in this shit together.”
[Alternative Press spring 2023 issue)
So when SZA finally followed up her groundbreaking solo debut with the release of SOS at the tail end of 2022, a great exhale passed through the timeline. After a shaky five-year buildup foreshadowed by a frustrated SZA threatening to quit music over prolonged delays at TDE, seeing the sophomore album materialize felt like witnessing a miracle. Since the drop, SOS has secured the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 albums chart for the 10th nonconsecutive week and scored an 8.7 rating from Pitchfork.
While it might not have been her intention, SZA masterfully plays with the concept of waking up and choosing violence through songs like “Kill Bill,” where she delivers punches like “I might kill my ex, I still love him, though/Rather be in jail than alone.” The accompanying visuals with co-star LaKeith Stanfield also hold space for Black women to unleash their anger, rage and disappointment. Even on songs like “Seek & Destroy,” which feels like an affirmation for self-sabotage, SZA steers us in the direction toward healing: “Now that I’ve ruined everything, I cannot complain/Now that I’ve ruined everything, I’m so fuckin’ free/Now that I’ve ruined everything, keep it all for me/Now that I’ve ruined everything, space is all I need.”
Whether you’re a hardcore R&B purist or gravitate toward the alternative end of the spectrum, there’s a little bit of something for everyone on SOS. SZA offers such a diverse sonic palette within this body of work — free-flowing interludes like “Blind” and “Smoking on my Ex Pack” often feel like palate cleansers between courses. Most importantly, the project embodies SZA’s growth as an artist while asserting her refusal to be pigeonholed. So there was no question about keeping all 23 tracks together on the same album because it represents the multifacetedness of SZA. “I believe that I’m the cohesive factor because these are all parts of me, so why would I separate it? I thought I was supposed to be letting people into who I am, not doing what people want,” she explains. “I think what makes something cohesive is the person being present.”
[Photo by Daniel Prakopcyk]
Of course, this isn’t SZA’s first rodeo in the realm of sonic exploration. For years, she occupied the corners of alt-R&B, lo-fi glitter trap and neo-soul spaces that thrived on platforms like Tumblr. “When people were like, ‘Oh, she’s changing her sound up.’ No, I’m not. This is the same person I’ve been since See.SZA.Run, literally,” she says. “I’ve always made alternative music — talking about ‘violating the bounds of platitude’ [on the 2012 track “Euphraxia”], what the fuck is that? That has nothing to do with R&B. But a lot of people don’t know me from that section of my life, and I feel like that’s OK… Whoever gets it, gets it, and the girls that don’t, don’t.”
This alternative ethos that shaped SZA permeates one of the album’s most energizing tracks, “F2F.” The pop-rock anthem channels some serious Fefe Dobson energy on the first listen — and had many fans divided on the feeds of Twitter and Instagram alike. Of course, the confusion didn’t go unnoticed. “I definitely felt like half of the people being like, ‘I wish this was R&B, and it’s not, and I hate it.’ And I was like, ‘Aww, I’m sorry, but also I don’t know…’ It is what it is.” For SZA, this song was a way to exercise her right to dive into a part of herself that she’s rarely shown to anyone else. “Sometimes you can’t fault people for putting you in a box if you don’t at least show them, and I definitely had to take responsibility for showing people who I was.”
In addition to Dobson and Avril Lavigne, other rock influences on the record include Good Charlotte, blink-182, Paramore, Green Day and even Nickelback. “I was hella moved by that in elementary and middle school,” SZA explains. “It made me feel so many things. I was like, ‘I don’t know why I’m in my room with the lights off crying, but that’s how I’m gonna spend my day.’”
[Photo by Daniel Prakopcyk]
For a select portion of her audience, SZA will also be remembered for introducing them to Phoebe Bridgers through “Ghost in the Machine.” It was an unexpected collaboration that SZA wasn’t sure would manifest, but she was thrilled when the indie darling agreed to be featured. The song itself came from a place of exhaustion after reading Instagram comments and feeling like there’s no common ground for people to genuinely connect anymore. “I feel like there’s so much debate about what’s good, what’s bad, what’s this, what’s that?” SZA wanted to weave in the voice of a “highly conversational” person, or as she explains, someone with a conversational approach to their music like Mac DeMarco, Connan Mockasin or Kevin Parker of Tame Impala.
“I didn’t think that [Bridgers] would come to the studio, let alone actually get on the song, so I was shocked,” SZA recalls. “She was so fucking nice, and we had the best time — she’s hilarious. I had no idea she was that funny. She literally downplayed what she did so crazy… I couldn’t believe it. She downplayed it even when she was done. She was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know. ’ I was like, ‘This is incredible. You’re insane.’ But she’s just great. She’s great! I love when she’s speaking like, ‘You’re not wrong, you’re an asshole.’ I love that… She just screams iconic vibes.”
[Photo by Daniel Prakopcyk]
“Nobody Gets Me” is another song serving the emo vibes reminiscent of the music that surely spoke to so many misunderstood teens-turned-adult millennials. The ballad is one of SZA’s personal favorites on the record, so she was surprised people didn’t latch onto it quite as quickly. Whereas hypersexuality gives some people the ick, SZA’s unfiltered canon of raw feelings seemingly makes others squirm because the level of vulnerability she exudes is too painfully real. “It’s easy to talk about things that are happening,” she explains. “When people sing about stuff that they want to do to people, that makes me feel more weird. If you’re just telling a story about how it went down and how it made you feel, there’s nothing that disconnects me from that. I fuck with that.”
Even the cover art for SOS that was photographed by Daniel Sannwald is emo AF, with SZA taking cues from the late Princess Diana, sitting on the edge of a diving board staring off into the sea of abyss. It’s more than encapsulating a mood; SZA transports us to a cinematic universe where listeners get to be the unhinged main character that drama follows. Another image that lingers is the trippy field of gigantic mushrooms in the music video for “Good Days,” a very Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland type of vibe. Retreating into nature as an exploration of self is a recurring theme for SZA that goes as far back as her “ICE.MOON” days in 2013.
“I don’t think I’m ever gonna not feel like that me in any way, shape or form,” SZA says about her connection to her past self. “I felt trapped, depressed, hopeless and shit like that, but I definitely still feel as deep and present as that girl… If anything, sometimes I want to return to that super naive space when everything was so brand new at that time.”
[Photo by Daniel Prakopcyk]
SZA STILL ISN’T AFRAID TO ENTER THE VOID and confront hard feelings with brutal honesty. While investigating the source of this current state of emotional detachment, she pulls a reference from the Buddhist practices that she’s deeply studied. “It’s all a part of the same energy, and I feel like negating any of that is damn negating your healing,” she adds. Think a little less existential, a little more enlightened.
While Ctrl catapulted SZA into a buzzy breakout success, SOS caused a glitch in the matrix that exploded into the mainstream. Of course, there’s a certain kind of fame that comes with that transition. SZA’s rise comes at a time when society has regressed to people wanting to be famous without having a career. As celebrities continue to compete with all the influencers and clout-chasers who live and breathe among us, SZA has maintained a quieter existence out of the public eye. The chorus of “Ghost in the Machine” echoes some of these concerns: “Y’all lack humanity, drowning in vanity.”
As a new sense of entitlement has been placed on artists, with the expectation that they be highly accessible online to perform for the masses, SZA’s response is leaning into the comfort of confidentiality. “It’s like your mental health is worthless because you have accolades,” she argues. “I don’t really know if people think it’s supposed to be normal to take constant scrutiny, judgment, opinions and all the negativity on a massive level. I feel like that is really unstable and unhealthy.”
SZA clocks how there’s a “weird backhanded approach on every platform” and criticizes how the rules to protect people from bullying aren’t extended to public figures. “You could definitely be like, ‘OK, let me just ignore it.’ But then you start to dissociate because if you dip your foot in the water and really allow yourself to be in it, it’s like, ‘How do you stay unaffected?’ I hate that constant battle, and I really wish everyone was more protected because it fucking sucks.”
[Photo by Daniel Prakopcyk]
That’s why SZA is more focused on protecting her peace at this stage of her metamorphosis. Some of the healing practices that keep her grounded include meditating, praying, hiking, reading books with guidelines about how to adjust your view of the world (The Power of Now) and straight up calling her mom. “I really like practical shit,” she says. “Toxic positivity never worked for me, so I’m definitely working on allowing myself to be how I feel and separating myself from my emotions.” Instead, she’s learning to observe, unpack and ask herself, “Why do I feel this way?”
So, what’s next for the artist who wants to make music without compromising her privacy? Well, SZA is excited about the deluxe version of SOS, which she confirms will feature the long-awaited track “Joni (Perfect Timing)” — the song is reportedly inspired by the living legend Joni Mitchell, a muse that she and Harry Styles now share. She’s also rehearsing for tour and getting her mind “in the space to be moving around a lot.” SZA has a competitive side, but that energy is mostly directed inward: She strives to be the best version of herself in a lane of her own making.
“I’m always gonna throw a bunch of wild cards. People didn’t pay attention when it was ‘Drew Barrymore’ or ‘Prom,’” SZA explains. “I never thought like, ‘This is a phase.’ I’ve always combined shit together. It was never just one thing. I just think I have a bigger profile now, and people are like, ‘OK, you’re supposed to get in a box and stay in a box.’ You wanna call me R&B so bad because I’m Black, but you don’t get to define me, though. I appreciate your opinion, but that doesn’t mean that’s who I am.”
[Photo by Daniel Prakopcyk]
At some point in the future, you might see SZA make an appearance on James Corden�����s Carpool Karaoke — she regretted turning down the offer years ago when she was too “scared of being on camera, looking bad, sounding bad and being perceived,” so SZA isn’t fumbling the bag a second time around. “I really have to remind myself this is my moment in the sun, and I have to take every opportunity because this shit may never happen again.”
Beyond the music world, SZA is also looking to get involved with more causes that help Black communities, whether it’s food insecurity and career coaching or suicide prevention and mental health. (In the past, she’s worked with organizations like SHE Wins and Camden City Garden.) “I feel like I’m searching myself to figure out what the next thing is I want to really throw myself into in a different way because I can tell that this particular time in the sun has very little to do with me and more to do with my service and who I could be for other people. I need to find out what my next direction from God is in that way,” she says.
Given everything that SZA knows now in her early 30s, she has some solid advice for a younger version of herself: “I would just reassure her that there’s nothing wrong with her and keep being yourself in the way that you really feel. Don’t let people guilt you into being boring or fucking homogenized too soon out of fear or anything like that. Don’t do it because it will count for something eventually. I’m even telling my current self that.”