In 2013, at Rubber Tracks Studio in New York, a nervous SZA took the stage. A standout track of her set was "Aftermath," a song about purgatory of the physical realm, a torturous love, and an eventual, nearly poetic demise. "Maybe we should burn," she proposed over and over again, as piano and drums replaced the song's original electronic instrumentation. "I doubt I'd ever be anyone's baby," she trails off, retreating back into her innermost self. This short, special clip that made me a fan of Solȧna Rowe nearly four years ago. And its essence—a perfect blend of vulnerability, elusiveness, and gentleness, still—has kept me transfixed by Solȧna, the woman, and SZA, the artist, from that moment on. That hasn't always been easy: SZA's stream of music since connecting with her label, T.D.E., four whole years ago has been scarce, at best. So, to quote SZA herself: where the hell has she been? And more pressingly, when the hell is she coming back? On the day of the Rubber Tracks performance, she was dressed understatedly in a one-piece coverall, her curls all combed out, eyes closed in focus. Or early performance anxiety. Or both. A few months later, she took to a similar, intimate stage in Toronto for the first time. In between songs, SZA shared a confession. She felt overwhelmed in all the best ways that she could be by her growing audience—largely comprised of young girls and women, many of whom look like her—and the career that was taking shape right before her very eyes. Reflecting on the show, SZA had this to say in a 2014 Life+Times DECODED interview: "It was like, my first, like, sold out show, and like, everybody was singing my words. And my mic, the cord in my mic fell out, and I was like, 'Oh shit, what am I gonna do?', but they finished my song for me," she said, a smile overtaking her face. "And it was just super crazy. I'm just like, 'Why are all of you here? Why do you care? This is so awesome.'"
SZA didn't mean to be a singer. There were no wistful, childhood dreams of stadium shows, long studios sessions, or fame. She didn't intend to even be in the music industry at all. "My parents wanted me to go to school," she said in the same interview. "They spent so much money, like, on me getting an education, and like, I totally fucked them." Before pursuing music, SZA was in college studying marine biology, but as she explained vaguely, her academic life unfurled, and she soon after left. It's at this moment of the conversation where SZA commends herself on her personal growth and the growth of her parents, as they practiced patience with their newly foreign, changing daughter through her music. "I don't know… Just the feeling of being fed up," she said finally of her early life troubles, concluding the nostalgic dip into the personal. "Just being so fed up with everything. Mostly myself." And she made the right choice: at the time of that interview, SZA already had two projects under her belt: See.SZA.Run and S, both independently released in 2013. Punch of Top Dawg Entertainment, who had been keeping in touch with the budding singer, signed her to the label that summer. What happens next is complicated. After a successful first run of festival tours, and the drop of Z, the second installation of her then-three part introduction—and her first project the unofficial first lady of T.D.E.—SZA… well, SZA disappeared. "Sobriety," a breakup Soundcloud loosie fueled by a fresh anger, longing, and resentment brought her back momentarily. Just as quickly, though, she was gone again. In 2015, she emerged once more, in a reintroduction of sorts: her hair was a fiery ginger, and her performance self—that is, the newly extroverted dancer slash gymnast side of the otherwise reclusive singer—traded in smocks for shorts, stripped down bands for flips and spins. Again, she played more festivals, joined Jhene Aiko's Enter the Void tour, and eventually dyed her hair back to black. At the start of 2016, Rihanna's ANTI, a mammoth of an album breaking her own extended hiatus, featured SZA on the lonely, self-contained intro, "Consideration." Writer Doreen St. Félix described the song best: "'Consideration' could not care less about sounding like a feminist anthem in the proper way, one that telegraphs passive misandry in the service of forcing female communion. It's an anti-anthem […] built for people who would rather be alone, unseen and isolated from the work of being a girl." St. Félix's analysis of "Consideration," but also inadvertently of SZA's particular writing and singing style, is spot-on. And if all that can be expressed by someone who has yet to drop their debut album, first tentatively called A, now CTRL, what's the real hold up?
To put it simply, SZA's been going through it.
"My life has just been falling the fuck apart," she revealed in her 2016 Complex cover story. "I buried, like, three ex-boyfriends, my granny died, I buried someone two days ago… I'm devastated by the state of the world and the hatred." To make matters worse, her music has been a source of its own anxiety, leading her to go so far as to share a since-retracted Internet-version of a resignation letter. (On October 3, 2016, she tweeted the following: "I actually quit . @iamstillpunch can release my album if he ever feels like it . Y'all be blessed .") Amidst the hectic whirlwind of her personal life—some of which she's shared, some of which she rightfully hasn't— CTRL's staggered delivery has understandably kept fans on their toes and at their wit's end with the singer, despite SZA's constant deference to T.D.E.'s co-president Punch as the man with the ultimate say so. More recently, there has been more pronounced promotional CTRL pushes: SZA's television debut is marked by a performance of "Drew Barrymore" on Jimmy Kimmel's late night show. (The song still has no video, however.) "Love Galore," a track originally teased with Tanisha Scott-instructed choreography on SZA's Instagram a whole 22 weeks ago, is a promising single, despite the album announcement fake-out by Top Dawg himself. Her interactive website, created after yet another delay, satiates fans with snippets of song and video that show SZA in her element, one with all the elements of her being. All things considered, SZA is an artist with incredible potential: her pen is unafraid and tender, her voice is distinct and uniquely gorgeous; she dances with the precision of an athlete; and, of course, she is stunning, with a beauty that is candid about her ups and downs with body image.
What's plagued her professional progression is some strange, unidentified variable. Maybe its her management, or her own personal hesitation to explore a fully-bloomed artistic space. (This is a real thing—singer Abra recently tweeted her own conflict with creating in a public sphere.) And maybe, just maybe, the right time hasn't presented itself. The optics, to say the least, of SZA's situation with T.D.E. are not good: what she's contributed thus far—hooks, promotional support of labelmates, surprise appearances on stages not her own—is typical for any singer, particularly a lone woman singer on a roster full of rappers, the label's core and assumed priority. Now, four years after her initial introduction, there seem to be more questions than ever around and about SZA, what she could be, and what's being done to ensure that she live up to her ever-growing hype. But after a few false starts and a big win, the light at the tunnel's end feels so, so close. (And the snippets, sparse and low-quality as they may be, sound like glo'd up, grown up versions of her previous projects.) All we can hope is that CTRL is reflective of all that fans know SZA to be— daring, sexy, and relentlessly transparent, almost to a fault—and not too little, too late. I'm still keeping my fingers crossed.
Amani Bin Shikhan is a writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.