The first thing you should know about about SZA is that she's completely winging it. An hour before a recent L.A. show at the El Rey Theatre, the 23-year-old singer hasn't slept or changed her clothes since performing across the country at New York's Webster Hall the night before. Her set list isn't finalized. She hasn't even met her drummer. Her regular percussionist, a firefighter back where she lives in New York, canceled last-minute. Given these circumstances, SZA is handling herself remarkably well.
SZA usually does a shot before her performances, but tonight she won't. Instead, she's searching for an outlet in her dressing room to plug in a curling iron while mulling whether to take "a half of a half" of a Xanax, a prescription for pre-show jitters given to her by one of the boys at her label, Top Dawg Entertainment — home to Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock and Ab-Soul. SZA is the imprint's first R&B signee, which is even more impressive considering she only released her first track last October, the gut-wrenching-but-sultry "Country."
She eventually plugs in her curling iron and reluctantly starts combing the knots out of her long, frizzy mane.
"I never planned for any of this," she says. "I never even factored in that people will eventually come up to me and they'll have to say my name." (For the record, her name is pronounced Sizza, like RZA and GZA.) "I never saw any [singers] that looked like me, so I never thought I'd have a crowd."
Facing a full-length mirror propped up against a table, her reflection shows that she's wearing a tattered straw Panama hat, a faded vintage USC football sweatshirt, frayed denim shorts slit from the hem up on both thighs (she accidentally ripped them on the plane ride here), and once-white Chucks paired with Top Dawg Entertainment crew socks.
She's planning on changing before her set. Her friend Marquel, who designs athletic-minded gear for Top Dawg, is dropping off a jersey for her to wear. Because she didn't pack anything for this trip, her manager, Punch, has to pick up a bra and some gray briefs from Rite Aid, a few doors down.
"I get a considerable amount of attention fashion-wise, which is weird to me because I'm 150 pounds and 5'4". I don't look like a model. I hate shopping," she says, before whispering her size to Punch for his drugstore run. "It's very frustrating, so I don't try stuff on. I just shot for a magazine a couple of weeks ago, had a stylist for the first time, and I ended up switching out everything in the middle of it and wearing my own clothes."
If she's not so concerned with her look, SZA is hyper-focused on the quality of her music and the ability to train her voice. Her vocals alternate between a vapory husk and a sky-high falsetto, and she hopes to use them as an instrument in the way that her idols Björk and Ella Fitzgerald did. Right now, she's afraid she won't be able to hit the high notes in "Julia" onstage, but her DJ, Ali (who tours with Kendrick Lamar), assures her that he can raise the volume on the backing tracks if she struggles.
SZA accidentally came across Björk's music when she stole an iPod from one of her peers at gymnastics camp, in which her mother enrolled her to "grace her up." "That shit changed my life," she says, adding that the iPod was also her window into rap artists like Jay Z, OutKast, Common, and Nas. Growing up, her strict parents limited her music access to Brazilian jazz, Miles Davis, soul and Lauryn Hill, who lived on the street behind her family in Maplewood, New Jersey. "I saw her at Baskin-Robbins all the time," SZA says. "She was this pretty voice and face that my father respected."
SZA hints that her father's respect was hard to earn, which is a recurring theme in her music. On her EP simply titled S (the first of a trilogy she started based on her initials), SZA freestyles with a prowess about familial conflict and self-loathing. "Julia," a dark, Eighties-recalling tune, is about having to downplay her sensitivity to her parents.
"As a kid, I took shit hard," she says while untangling a knot in her hair. "My dad, with his militant state of mind, was meant for boys and talked to me like I was a boy. I was a crybaby. My mom was like, 'You're too sensitive. You got to get over it'" – a comment which prompted the lyric, "Mama says I'm sensitive/I gotta work on that."
New wardrobe in hand, it's almost game time. SZA changes into her jersey and Rite Aid briefs, and she lathers oil onto her legs and does a quick round of jumping jacks while singing a wide range of "ah"s.
Minutes later the curtain goes up, and SZA introduces herself to the sold-out venue. "Sometimes I like to perform the way I practice, so I'm wearing boxer briefs," she says, lifting up her jersey to show the crowd. "It's more comfy; it's more me. So I figured I'd share me with you." She barrels through most of her EP, nailing the high notes she was fretting over moments before. She didn't even take the Xanax.
After the show, Kendrick Lamar surprises her. He's in town to rehearse for his upcoming tour with Kanye West. He leaves as suddenly as he arrived – his entourage is too large for backstage. SZA walks through a mass of Top Dawg affiliates, managers and friends eager to commend her performance and heads back upstairs to her dressing room.
"I didn't even see Kendrick show up," she says, smiling and pulling her knees into her chest. "That made my whole day."