sza z

STAFF PICKS: SZA’s Z is a smart look back at girlhood

Top Dawg Entertainment's only female member is carefree on her third EP, but don't mistake that for lightweight.

- Apr 22, 2014

SZA is a 23-year-old singer from New Jersey and the only female member of TDE, the ecumenical, L.A.-based clique that includes rappers Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, JayRock, Ab-Soul, and Isaiah Rashad. She’s also a mercurial Scorpio, which partially explains her ability to write and perform songs that are beguilingly vulnerable, while maintaining a certain remove.

At a recent show in Toronto, SZA spilled Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey into the gaping mouths of grown-ass female fans and gave thanks for all of the similarly curly-haired girls in the building. The biggest cheers from the sizable crowd came for “Aftermath,” a Bowie-meets-Weezy cosmic missive that opens with the line: “I apologize for waiting to tell you for so long that I am not human.”

This album is warm and playful and sad, as multifarious as the teenage girlhood SZA is still shedding.

Her personal brand appears to be ‘carefree’ – that is, unbothered by gender and cultural constraints – but it’s carried by a substantive impulse. To wit: SZA, who was born to a Muslim father and is a former hijabi, is a name stylized after Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and premised on the Nation of Islam’s interpretive Supreme Alphabet (SZA = Sovereign Zig-Zag Allah).

Her latest project is the 10-song EP, Z, which, unlike last year’s pair of shorter EPs, feels less immediate. That’s partially due to the production, which comes courtesy of names like Mac Miller, Toro Y Moi, and DJ Dahi, and is best described as somnambulant. SZA, like some of her TDE affiliates, plays to the unruffled smoker – the kind of people living contentedly in the cut – and dynamism is what’s most apparently lost in the quest to convey chill. Only TDE go-to beatmakers Felix Snow and Dave Free flirt with BPM on the perky Julia Roberts homage, “Julia.” Even Toro Y Moi, who gets dancier with every record, toes the party line here.

This album is warm and playful and sad, as multifarious as the teenage girlhood SZA is still shedding. She writes like Roald Dahl and Frank Ocean, placing wholesome sentiment next to the weird and macabre. “Your skin tastes like brussel sprouts, I swear,” she mumbles on “Ur,” before warning that “bumping that Jadakiss is dangerous for sanity” on “Shattered Ring.” A standout track is “Child’s Play,” where SZA and Chance The Rapper map out their own Terabithia, leaving a trail of Barbie doll heads, Street Fighter references, and blunt ashes in their wake.

She’s a less didactic Jill Scott, a calmer Kelis, and less of a formalist than Muhsinah – these are all singers who perform with a jazzy, confident musicality and embody a love of whimsy. When SZA sings songs often start timidly in her mouth, before she opens up – literally – by moving the music into her throat.

Revelatory is when SZA is at her best. As a plush-thighed, tomboy-ish, big-haired, freckled black woman, SZA’s derision of physical insecurity and obvious beauty feels like an epiphany. “I can’t recall the last time I took advice from anyone/Shaped like a figure eight, who trusts pretty girls anyway?” she asks on Z’’s first single, “Babylon.” And on “Warm Winds,” she advocates patience: “Beauty’s never given in a hurry…Long live tramp stamps and Pepper Ann, you will never judge me for that.” The latter track is particularly brilliant for the way it collapses influences; it’s not R&B or chillwave, and mimics the strength, in statement and structure, of Fiona Apple’s deconstructed folk-pop.

That’s the underlying maturity to what might be seen as childish affectation. SZA is not carefree in absence of knowing herself; it’s this knowledge that sets her free.

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