SZA: Women Shaping the Future Cover Star - Rolling Stone
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The Rebirth of SZA

She transformed R&B with her honesty and warmth. Fans are desperate for new music — but first, she’s working on herself

SZA womens issue cover

SZA photographed in Los Angeles on January 28th, 2020 by Campbell Addy.

Produced by Rachael Lieberman. Set design by Ali Gallagher at Jones Mgmt. Fashion direction by Rachel Johnson. Tailoring by Kimberly Mackin. Hair by Randy Stodghill at Opus Beauty. Nails by Teana Nails. Makeup by Ernesto Casillas for The Only Agency. Styling by Dianne Garcia for The Only Agency. Vest and pants by Karl Kani. Chain vest by Comme Des Garçon archived from Artifact NYC.

It’s past midnight at SZA’s home in Los Angeles when she disappears to retrieve her set of sound bowls. There’s a car arriving in just under three hours to take her to the airport, where she’ll be catching a 6 a.m. flight to Hawaii, but she’s not concerned about her suitcase. “I’m not packing shit but T-shirts,” she says giddily. Kauai, where she will go on to write at Rick Rubin’s house for the next six days, “is a very healing place. It fits my brain.”

SZA, 29, returns and arranges seven bowls, ranging in size from cereal to oversize salad, on the wood floor of her living room, carefully resting each one on a small circular base. She’s been using them in the studio, recording low frequencies for some of her new tracks — you can barely hear them, she says, but the bowls create “an internal hum that feels right.” One of them broke recently, and it made her cry like she had lost a person. She couldn’t bring herself to throw it away, so she wrapped it in a T-shirt and left it at the base of a tree in her backyard.

“Each of these are toned to different chakras in your body,” she says, pointing to them one by one. “So this is a low D. This is your high B, which is your astral plane of your crown chakra.” She continues down the line. Each bowl’s material dictates its healing properties, she explains: Selenite and pink salt are for cleansing, morganite is for love and kindness. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she begins to play them by drawing her mallet around the bowls’ rims. “You pick whatever note comes to your mind naturally, and you imagine it squeezing out of your body. You compress it, like this,” she says, pressing her hands to her chest. “Push it out.” A note emerges from SZA’s lips, clear and full.

As the sparsely furnished room starts to vibrate, she joins her bowls in a duet, singing out brilliant, single-note tones as the mood strikes her. All of the sounds start to meld together, surging and falling. Five minutes pass like this, just SZA sitting cross-legged on the floor in sweats, contentedly playing a one-woman sound-bowl show in the middle of the night. When she is feeling dark, SZA says as she plays, she will pick a word and sing it with intention. “I’m blessed, I’m well, I’m well,” she sings out suddenly, in tune with one of the instruments. She pauses for a moment and sighs. “It works. I feel, like, 10 times better already.”

Growing up in suburban Maplewood, New Jersey, Solána Imani Rowe felt she had a chip on her shoulder. In high school, she recalls, “I wanted to be liked and have a good time, but it just wasn’t in the books for me.” She skipped her prom to go to South Beach with her mom and a few close friends, and one night found herself partying in the VIP section of a club, not far from Lil Wayne and Diddy. The trip, she says, “kind of cracked the door open. I was like, ‘Fuck this, I don’t have any friends anyway. There’s nothing to stick around for. I might as well go chase more.’ ”

She went to college to study marine biology, then worked retail and service jobs while making music on the side. Around 2012, back when artists could still develop a following off of self-released SoundCloud tracks, she started generating buzz online with songs like “Aftermath,” whose heady lyrics (“I am not human/I am made of bacon, fairy tales, pixie dust, I don’t feel”) helped draw in fans.

One of them was the author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who copied another line from “Aftermath” (“You don’t have to kidnap/I’d like to be kidnapped”) into a notebook while writing his 2019 novel The Water Dancer. “When I hear SZA’s lyrics, it feels like it’s definitively her — this really human, young, black woman who is sometimes insecure about her body, other times feels really sexy, sometimes falls really hard,” Coates says. “That’s what an artist is supposed to do. Once they get into that specificity of who they are, that’s when they’re touching the most human aspect of it.”

Top Dawg Entertainment co-president Terrence “Punch” Henderson took notice, too, signing SZA as the label’s first woman artist in 2013. Ctrl, the debut album that followed in 2017, made her a star. She stood out by writing the way a woman’s internal monologue might actually sound, oscillating between public-facing bite and what are usually privately-held insecurities. (“Let me tell you a secret/I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy,” she sang 43 seconds into her hit “Supermodel,” before allowing, “Wish I was comfortable just with myself.”) As millennial coming-of-age texts go, Ctrl is on a level all its own: It sounds like a vulnerable twentysomething’s stream of consciousness, brimming with anxieties, discontented love stories, and a range of pop-culture references one can only absorb from growing up on the internet.

SZA photographed in Los Angeles on January 28th, 2020 by Campbell Addy.

SZA photographed in Los Angeles on January 28th, 2020 by Campbell Addy.

Since being signed, SZA has garnered nine Grammy nominations, performed on Coachella’s main stage, and written and sung on tracks by superstars from Beyoncé to Post Malone. “All the Stars,” her 2018 collaboration with labelmate Kendrick Lamar for the Black Panther soundtrack, has been streamed nearly 700 million times on Spotify. Still, she says she feels dogged by a sense of guilt, like she needs to do more. She considers herself to be shy and awkward, and to this day says she still doesn’t feel worthy when she steps onstage: “I’m always shocked that people are there.”

It’s been nearly three years since Ctrl was released, and SZA’s very committed fan base has grown impatient. When she tweets these days, no matter the subject, the replies invariably turn into a chorus of inquiries about her next project (“Honey, i want some new music pls not facts about dinosaurs’ farts,” to cite a recent example), and the few snippets she’s shared have been carefully cataloged online. Even SZA, when we first sit down together in late January, asks me warily, “Is this supposed to be about the album?”

When I arrive at her spacious two-story Tudor house around 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night, SZA has just finished cooking dinner for herself and a couple of friends. She looks ready for bed, in gray sweatpants and a cropped green Champion sweatshirt. Instead, she sprawls on her plush white carpet with the comfort of a former gymnast, which she is, and slowly rolls herself a joint.

The free-associative, playful way of thinking that SZA’s known for in her songwriting comes across in conversation as well — an aside about how much she admires a certain musician, for example, turns into extended musing about men in the industry who possess “Johnny Bravo energy” (a work-in-progress list: King Krule, Frank Ocean, Future). She flashes her eyes conspiratorially when she’s amused or intrigued, and shows a true stoner’s dualism: external curiosity and inward-facing thoughtfulness in equal measure.

“You really have to choose to feel better. You have to. Because if you don’t, you just die.”

She says she’s nervous about her first proper interview in a year, but speaks so openly that it almost seems like she’s been waiting for an opportunity to explain herself. It has been, in SZA’s words, “a wild-ass fucking year,” full of grief and introspection. She’s just beginning to process it all, through wellness practices and, in stages, through her music.

About that: “Music is coming out this year for sure,” she says. “An album? Strong words.” The much-reported rumor that she was planning on releasing a trilogy of albums and then retiring, she says, is nonsense.

“I can always make music. It’s who I am,” she says. “So if I started making fucking sculptures and decide to take up entomology, I’m still probably going to drop something. I am also getting to know myself. Because if I keep trying to regurgitate the same girl, y’all are going to hate that shit. And I don’t want that either.”

She’s aware of the pressure, though. “I’ve dropped nothing but features,” she says. “People don’t know who the fuck I am, right? They think I’m on some stupid superstar shiny shit. I know people are tired of seeing that. They want to see me. I owe people that. So I’m going to do that.”

She’s been drawing inspiration from jazz (Miles Davis, John Coltrane) and a truly eclectic playlist she made “from my childhood,” which jumps around from the Beach Boys to Ella Fitzgerald to Australian neo-soul group Hiatus Kaiyote. “I don’t even give a fuck about cohesion,” she adds. “If you sound like you, your shit’s going to be cohesive. Period.”

“She has so much range,” TDE’s Henderson tells me later. “She can do alternative rock, traditional R&B, hip-hop, country. Weaving all of those in together, kind of how we did on Ctrl — that’s the fun part for me. It’s a new chapter. She’s not scared to try certain things now.”

SZA recently spent time in the studio with Timbaland (“He played fucking Brazilian jazz-type beats, and I popped off to that”), and she had a revelatory session with Sia (they wrote three songs together, and SZA says the “Chandelier” singer “manifested the best of me”). And back in October, she took a phone call one morning from a man with a thick, put-on accent, asking her to perform at some international festival. After a while, he dropped the ruse and told her, “This is Stevie.” “I was like, ‘Stevie who?’ He’s like, ‘Stevie Wonder.’ ”

SZALovebox Festival, Gunnersbury Park, London, UK - 13 Jul 2018

SZA performing in London, 2018. Photo credit: Scott Garfitt/Shutterstock

He asked her to join him onstage at his annual Taste of Soul festival in L.A. the next day, and she flew her dad out to see it. She jokes that it was the first time she’d ever gotten up for a 9 a.m. soundcheck. Before they performed, she and Wonder spent two hours together in his trailer, freestyling at the piano. She plays me a bit from the recording — just her and Wonder exchanging vocal riffs over his keys — and mentions that she’s excerpted it for five different potential beats. “I have nowhere else to go from here,” she says, laughing. “That was scary for me, because that’s the top of my bucket list.”

SZA lights up when she recounts that morning with Wonder, and the more she talks, the clearer it is why: It was a bright spot amid a sequence of intense personal losses that have made her fans’ insatiable hunger for new music feel even more overwhelming. First, her close friend and collaborator Mac Miller died from an accidental overdose in the fall of 2018. Then, in early 2019, her maternal grandmother Norma’s health took a turn for the worse.

SZA spent much of last year traveling frequently between L.A. and New Jersey, where Norma was in hospice care, making it difficult to get in a creative groove in the studio. Everything felt up in the air. “I’ve been in the airport on the way to see my grandmother on life support,” she says, “and [fans] are like, ‘Aw, girl, what are you doing here? Can I get this picture now?’ ”

At home, she helped change her grandmother’s diapers and colostomy bags, and tried to be there for her own grieving mother. “My grandma was like my best friend,” she says. “It was the longest five months of my life.” In May, when Norma was really struggling, SZA performed on Saturday Night Live with DJ Khaled, which made her feel immense guilt.

Recounting all this from the floor in her living room, she starts to cry — first silently, and then in steady, quiet sobs. “I didn’t want to make music,” she says. “I didn’t. I was just trying to not kill myself, and not quit, period. Because it was really fucking hard, and lonely as fuck.”

Norma died in June, at age 90. Five months later, in November, SZA’s maternal aunt died unexpectedly. “I’ve buried so many people in my life, you would think that I would be used to it, or just have a threshold. But my grandma broke the threshold for me. It was so weird to not have any . . .” — her voice breaks — “I don’t know, any control over anything.”

To begin what she calls “my own journey out of this dark-ass depression,” SZA leaned into exercise and wellness. She committed herself to going to the gym every day and practicing Pilates; she got into crystals and meditation and sound bowls. (In December, she performed with the latter publicly for the first time at a chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.) She says all of these things, bit by bit, started to help.

“You really have to choose to feel better. You have to. Have to,” she says through tears, pounding her floor for emphasis. “Because if you don’t, you just die. I decided I’m going to choose that shit for my fucking self, for real. I feel like I’m only trying to make music that I care about, and I’m trying to work with people that will fuck with me for real. That’s it. I’m just trying to do everything that is meaningful, and do shit that’s passionate, and remind myself that I’m worth something and talented and a nice girl. Just basic shit.” She pauses and collects herself. “So that’s what the fuck I’ve been doing.”

rs1337 cover rolling stone megan thee stallion sza normani

SZA, Megan Thee Stallion, and Normani (from left) photographed in Los Angeles on January 28th, 2020, by Campbell Addy.
SZA: Pants by Karl Kani. Boots by Heliot Emil. Belt chain by Martine Ali. MEGAN THEE STALLION: Hair by Kellon Deryck. Nails by Coca Michelle. Styling by EJ King. Bodysuit by Bao Tranchi. Top and bottom by Zana Bayne. Boots by Jennifer Le. NORMANI: Hair by Yusef at Factory Downtown. Nails by Yvett Garcia. Makeup by Rokael for Rokael Beauty. Styling by Vincent Smith for Mastermind Management Group. Shoes by Stuart Weitzman. Skirt by Marina Hoermanseder. Belt and bra by Zana Bayne. Anklet by Laruicci. Necklaces by Laruicci and Adore Adorn. Bracelets by Laruicci, Alexis Bittar, and IZA by Silvia D’Avila Jewelry.

A week later, SZA is back in L.A., fresh off a productive trip to Kauai. She extended her stay for an extra day, building a “crystal grid” around her microphone, working from 3 p.m. to 4 a.m. each night, and writing four new songs, including one that she describes as “a trap song from the perspective of Joni Mitchell.” She swam in the ocean under the stars and saw a sea turtle swimming next to her. “I broke into tears on the second night,” she says. “There were so many stars it made me feel like, ‘Oh, God, where am I, for real? What is this planet?’ ”

After a single night at home, she’ll get on another plane, to Miami, to work with Pharrell, whom she’s idolized for years: “I’ve stalked him my whole life.” Their paths first crossed when she was a teenage intern at his clothing company, Billionaire Boys Club. One day, she was tasked with bringing clothes to a N.E.R.D. music-video set, and they had her pose for the cameras. (Sure enough, 37 seconds into the “Everyone Nose” video, there’s high school SZA showing off a two-finger ring.) A decade later, she’s writing music with him.

Lately, she’s been working toward gradual growth, instead of seeing everything happening all at once. “It’s about recording every single day, with the idea and intention that you’re chipping away at this invisible thing that will eventually reveal itself,” SZA says.

In Hawaii, she adds, “every day became its own nucleus of ideas and experimentations, which led to making some shit I haven’t heard before. Usually when I hear something that I haven’t heard before, I hear it from somebody else. It’s exciting when I’m hearing shit I haven’t heard before, and it’s coming from me.”

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