How SZA Beat Depression and Cracked the Top 10 With ‘Ctrl’
SZA arrives at Chelsea’s SIR Studio on a recent Tuesday evening with a plastic baggie full of weed, a black eye, a cell-phone photo of her new gun, and a buzzing, electric energy that borders on mania. About the black eye: “I fell out of a treehouse. I couldn’t hold the blunt and the rope at the same time.” About the gun: “The world is scary. I’m a gun-toting, weed-smoking American. ‘Cause multiplicity, it’s a human right.” And about the mania: “Jesus, I haven’t slept yet. My flight [from L.A.] was this morning at 6 a.m. Sleep is a funny concept, it’s like, ‘What is that?’ I can go days without sleep.” Soon she’s passing a joint among her bandmates and somehow managing to only get more manic. “I’m not gonna remember anything I said to you,” she tells me, convincingly. “If I say anything crazy, just be like, ‘Bitch, calm down.’”
Thing is, it’s hard to imagine SZA calming down any time soon. That’s in part due to the success of her first studio album, Ctrl, which came out this past June. But it’s also just due to her vibe. “Like, I have a weird disposition,” she says. “It’s like that run-on-can’t-calm-down-waves-of-emotion thing.” Growing up in leafy Maplewood, New Jersey, the daughter of a Muslim executive producer at CNN (dad) and a Christian executive at AT&T (mom), SZA – or Solána Rowe, as she was known then – was one of the few black kids in her neighborhood (“Mind yourself!”). She wore a hijab and says she was bullied even before 9/11, which was “just on some whole other level,” she says. “‘Oh, this bitch is Muslim? Let me get another reason to hate her.’” She transferred colleges four times before dropping out for good – “I just smoked and failed out; no crazy story there” – at which point, she found herself sleeping on couches, bartending at strip clubs (“that was my shit“) and hanging out with her older brother, Daniel, who had musical aspirations. “He was having me sing Biggie lyrics over MF Doom, or, like, introducing me to the Dum Dum Girls,” says SZA, who wasn’t allowed to watch TV or listen to the radio growing up. “I was depressed and he was depressed, and I didn’t have shit else to do.” Turns out, music was “just one thing I didn’t suck at.”
That’s how SZA’s two self-released mixtapes, See.SZA.Run and S, came about. “I was just making music in my homeboy’s closet, stealing beats off YouTube and SoundCloud,” she shrugs. Somehow, though, it worked. In 2013, she became the first female artist to be signed to Top Dawg Entertainment, Kendrick Lamar’s label. “Even the day I got signed, I was broke as fuck,” she says. “I didn’t have bread to get to the bank and cash my check. I just looked at it and took pictures of it for like three days until I could get to my parents’, and they drove me to the bank.” She smiles broadly. “I told them I signed to Dr. Dre because they didn’t know who anyone else was.”
SZA released her EP Z shortly after being signed, and then spent three years freaking out about how to release a full album. In part, there was the issue of no longer being such a small fry that she was able to steal beats, which meant that now she needed to “cultivate my ideas of ‘Who am I, sonically? Don’t be boring, bitch!’” But also, suddenly, she cared. She wanted her music to match the fierceness of her live performances, when utter fear gave her an edge that was hard to recreate in the studio. She’d watched three ex-boyfriends die in quick succession, and, having pulled herself out of a suicidal depression (“I don’t know how; I just prayed”), she was slowly, slowly working toward a form of self-acceptance that gives the album its mesmerizing pull and push: chill beats overlaid with lyrics that are anything but; a tone that vacillates between neediness and swagger, sometimes even within a single line. One song is dedicated to the glory of vaginas and finds Lamar rapping about the clitoris. “I was feeling very aggressive that day,” she tells me.
Now,things have gotten a bit crazy. Like, a Porsche to pick her up from the airport, and entering the orbits of Rick Rubin (“he’s like a myth”), FrankOcean (“the secret man behind the curtain”) and RZA (“he’sgnarly as fuck, everything you think he is”). But also: fans who make itimpossible for her to make it the few blocks to the High Line, where she’d liketo go for a walk. “I’m scared to go anywhere,” she says. “Butno, no, we’re not talking about anything negative, because we’re not gonnamanifest that shit in our life.” Having sufficiently toked away anynegativity, she heads back to the music room to rehearse for an appearance twonights from now on Jimmy Fallon. She plans to sing “Love Galore,” butit’s a duet with Travis Scott, and there’s a question about whether or not he’llactually show. SZA fluffs her hair and paces, but decides not to manifest thatshit in her life: She forges ahead with the single, as planned. “He notgonna fuck my set up,” she says before grabbing the mic. “Not on TV.My momma coming.”