In 2017 SZA was an outsider. Debut album CTRL cast her into the periphery of pop and the hip hop world. Four years later, her Doja Cat collaboration ‘Kiss Me More’ is the third most listened-to single in the world. There is much to suggest she is more than simply SZA hitching a ride on Doja Cat’s own ascending star.
Hit different: How SZA became a star
Solána Imani Rowe grew up in New Jersey. She dreamed of being a gymnast or, failing that, a business accountant. Fate drew her along a very different path. After beginning to record her own music in her early 20s, a chance meeting led Rowe to sign with hip hop label Top Dawg Entertainment in 2013. In the following years, she would release three EPs though at this period of her career she was better known for working as a songwriter for Rihanna and co-writing Nicki Minaj’s ‘Feelin’ Myself‘. Collaborations with Chance the Rapper and TDE’s Kendrick Lamar also drew widespread attention to her talents.
Top Dawg Entertainment had a reputation for backing artists with ambitious creative visions. As a record label, they also placed heavy emphasis on high-quality recordings. SZA’s meticulously produced 2017 debut album CTRL was no exception. Until now she had been best known for her vocals. CTRL established SZA as a poetic songwriter and albums artist.
From the fringe to the center
Appreciation of SZA’s work has only grown in recent years. Her lyrical impact on other acts been tremendous. What is more, her spiritual philosophy, which draws from Muslim, Taoist, Buddhist, and Christian faiths, also provides a different perspective from many of her contemporaries. SZA’s honest songwriting expresses what is going on in her world in emotional and often surprising ways.
Following its release, CTRL became widely influential. What is more, it had to stay power. Millions across the world have never stopped listening to CTRL since it was first released in 2017. At the time of writing, the album has spent 204 weeks in the US charts.
The album’s reputation alongside SZA’s continues to grow. Currently, SZA has 9.9 million Instagram followers. Chartmetric ranks her as the 33rd most listened to act in the United States with 39.2 million monthly listeners on Spotify.
From underground to overground success
With the December 2020 release of ‘Good Days’, SZA signaled she was ready to capture the public imagination at large. She was well placed to do so. In addition to SZA’s solo work, Kendrick Lamar collaboration ‘All The Stars’ on The Black Panther soundtrack had introduced her work to millions. (It has been streamed more than 850 million times.) SZA had also recently appeared on Post Malone‘s Holywood’s Bleeding, Megan Thee Stallion‘s Good News, Cardi B‘s Invasion of Privacy, and DJ Khaled‘s Father of Ashad. CTRL‘s ‘Love Galore’ no doubt also benefited from Travis Scott‘s post-Astrowolrd megastardom.
One thing that has also been overlooked in SZA’s recent climb to fame, is the popularity of her material with a younger generation of fans on TikTok. The video-sharing platform has significantly boosted SZA’s fame. ‘Good Days’ has appeared in 306,300 TikTok videos. ‘Kiss Me More’ 1.2 million. Calvin Harris‘ remix of SZA track ‘The Weekend (Funk Wav Remix)‘ has topped both, soundtracking 7.4 million individual clips.
Is R&B a racist genre label?
As “R&B Royalty” SZA has been a celebrated alternative act for close to half a decade. SZA has also born the label of “contemporary R&B” for most of her career. A less generous word to describe this would be pigeonholed.
Granted her musical personality has been hard to pin down. In 2021 these labels have been falling away. This said the label of ‘R&B’ and its close association with race carries certain connotations that may be challenged for the same reasons Tyler the Creator has publicly rejected the ‘urban’ genre label. “It sucks,” Tyler shared during a 2020 Grammy Awards ceremony acceptance speech, “that whenever we, and I mean guys that look like me, do anything that’s genre-bending or that’s anything they always put it in a rap or urban category. I don’t like that ‘urban’ word — it’s just a politically correct way to say the n-word to me.”
The world has come to embrace a genre of skipping sounds. SZA herself is as much as inspired by classic hip hop as Brazillian jazz, Janet Jackson or Tame Impala. This embodies the ease through which fans can pass through different styles of music in the streaming era. It may have taken a few years longer, but pop’s audience has finally caught up with SZA.
SZA and Physical Transformation
“I could be your supermodel if you believe,” SZA sings on CTRL‘s ‘Supermodel’. “If you see it in me, see it in me, see it in me I don’t see myself… Wish I was comfortable just with myself. But I need you, but I need you, but I need you.”
There is no getting around SZA has changed in her appearance. Cardi B and Nicki Minaj both went through shifts in an appearance before reaching the loftiest heights of their careers. It is nothing new. In the world of music, women face the double standard of not only being talented but having to conform to traditional standards of beauty. Black American women, who are often presented to the public as sexualized cliches, doubly so.
Change of this kind is not in itself bad. “It’s all about what makes you feel good,” Billie Eilish explained to Vouge in her recent cover interview. “If you want to get surgery, go get surgery. If you want to wear a dress that somebody thinks that you look too big wearing, f**k it – if you feel like you look good, you look good.”
There is a darker side to artists altering their appearance too. Some fans have expressed concern as to whether SZA has changed to please not herself but for others. Furthermore, the lessons of Micheal Jackson and Lil Kim suggest the lure of short-term gains may obscure long-term health problems.
To focus on appearances, which as ever can be deceiving, runs the risk of distracting from the fact SZA is an artist. If she is to be discussed, it ought to be for her creative output. In 2021 her work is finding its way into the ears of a new and massive audience.
SZA has belonged to the world of indie for close to half a decade. Her fans identified themselves of the fact she was left-and-center and so were they. She has changed. Many will be onboard with her evolution, which seems more squarely for coming to creative terms with the world at large. Though as Paul McCartney once noted that in order to do their best work artists will often lose as many fans as they gain.
SZA in a pop context will no doubt challenge the image many have come to associate with CTRL. Simplicity is key in the world of pop. By necessity, some of the nuances of artists personality and what they have to say is lost in translation. As cartoonish as it can be, pop can also amplify some of the best elements an artist has to offer. The success of ‘Kiss Me More‘ embodies this. While the song was written by SZA, Doja Cat, and a number of songwriters, it strongly reflects SZA’s forward-looking and kaleidoscopic take on the genre.
On the back of the as-close-to-summing-up-the-coronavirus-experience as possible ‘Good Days’, it suggests SZA riding a creative high. She can express the hopes, fears, and anxieties of a generation with music that can dominate a commercial market. Most stars have one but not the other. This makes the combination of SZA’s creative personality and musical talents a rare and powerful combination.
Final Thoughts on SZA
As it stands, ‘Kiss Me More’ is number six in the US charts. The single’s popularity in the UK currently places it at number three. In Australia, it is number one. (SZA’s previous song ‘Good Days‘ likewise climbed to number 38 in the US charts in January.)
Fame, however, does not last. Often an artist must fight as hard to hold on to it as they did to get it in the fast place. Many an artist has lost it without ever taking the opportunity to enjoy it. If there is some assurance that can be drawn from SZA’s journey so far it is this. Like CTRL, she herself has staying power. Stepping to the front as one of the most distinctive personalities in modern music over the past decade, the strength of her work as an artist refuses to be ignored.
What The Glitter & Gold can learn from SZA
It comes down to being good at what you do. Remove all the noise from the conversation. SZA is a songwriter and recording artist first and foremost. While she has her hangups, such as perfectionism, control, and the struggle to find love, she is unafraid to be herself or express her feelings.
While remaining true to her vision she asks what it takes to be genuine and real in an increasingly digital world, one that worships wealth and appearance over everything else. SZA is willing to ask questions and look for answers as elusive as they might be. She points to the possibility that individuality and personality can be championed over labels. In making its own investigation into pop culture and human nature The Glitter and Gold can certainly benefit from doing the same.