“I don’t condone daydreaming,” says SZA, fixing me with her brown, almond-shaped eyes. “I’m so pessimistic. Nothing good has ever happened to me—I’ve never won a raffle or a carnival game; I’m not a lucky person. Everything I’ve ever done has just been off ridiculously hard work and I feel like I haven’t worked enough.” We’re sitting in the garden of St. Mark’s Church, a pocket of pastoral calm tucked away from the melee of 2nd Avenue in the East Village, and SZA is talking about joining Top Dawg Entertainment with whom she signed earlier this year. She first met co-president Terrence “Punch” Henderson back in 2011, when she was just starting out, and many demos later, she has finally arrived. “My standards for myself are impossible, it’s unhealthy. It’s like, why would you want to sign me? You guys are incredible. I’ve got so much more to do.”
SZA’s pretty good at giving herself a tough time. In the past 12 months she’s dropped two EPs, and in August she stunned with two more standalone songs, “Julia” and “Teen Spirit.” Really, signing SZA—born Solana Rowe—was a no-brainer for TDE. Her oeuvre thus far is compelling. See.SZA.Run explores the inkier corners of slow jam R&B with unhurried languor, while its follow-up, S, is glazed with fluttering synths, with SZA’s insta-pop hooks pulled to the fore. Her songs come off as both ominous and airy, and then there’s that killer use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere” on the twinkling “Castles.”
The St. Louis-born, Maplewood, NJ-raised singer is a refreshing counterpoint to TDE’s roster of Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, and Ab-Soul et al. Stunning in the flesh—black curls frame a flawless face dotted with pinprick freckles—her uniform of beat-up Converse, boxers, and baggy jerseys (today it’s a tie-dye Thrasher t-shirt), shows SZA can roll with the boys, no biggie.
Indeed, part of the singer’s appeal is her no messing, let’s-just-do-this attitude. For “Teen Spirit,” SZA’s vocal unfurls with an upfront bedroom intimacy, over a rolling WondaGurl beat. “We never mixed that song, I think you can hear me clearing my throat,” she says. “There was no engineer, we recorded it in two hours. There was so much passion in the recording process, shit was just flying out of my mouth.”
Her debut album, she says, is already in the bag, but SZA’s still set to release a further two EPs (Z and A) before her full length drops. So far, her selection of producers has been choice and neatly left of center: 16-year-old Ebony “WondaGurl” Oshunrinde (Jay-Z’s “Crown”), Brandun DeShay (Mac Miller), DFA synth-disco dudes Holy Ghost!, Emile Haynie (Lana Del Rey, Eminem), and Felix Snow who turned out the shimmering 80s synth-pop gem “Julia” after the pair were inspired by Drake on the car stereo. Again, two hours later and they had it nailed.
“I have fun becoming something different on each song; it’s like playing musical dress up,” she explains. “So for that day I was Cyndi Lauper, but when I’m with Emile, I’m Johnny Cash in my brain.”
SZA is newly 24—her birthday was last week—and although she is both willfully headstrong and young, her experiences in those two decades have instilled in her a steely determination. An abridged version of some of these experiences and guises include training as a gymnast as a kid and dancing with the American Ballet Theater. As an Orthodox Muslim, she was shielded from pop music (she listened to her dad’s Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald Records), but at 16 she stopped wearing her hijab and rebelled and two years later she was tending bar at a strip club. Oh and P.S. she also has a degree in Marine Biology from an Ivy League college. Much of which we talk about—and more—below.
Photo by Theonepointeight.
What happened when you signed to TDE? Did you have a TDE dinner where you all hung out?
You know what’s crazy, no! That has yet to happen. I’ve met everyone on the roster, I’ve recorded with a couple of them. They’re the most honest people ever. They don’t fuck around, no one is going to hold your hand, no one’s going to be like, “You’re amazing, we love you.” The way they show they respect you is by respecting your craft. They’ll fight for you to get in with anyone you want. They’ll nourish your creativity. That’s the way they work, it’s not like, here’s a bottle of Ace of Spades, let’s go have dinner at Philippe Chow and pop bottles. Half of them don’t even drink. It’s very family. I respect that rather than someone who would give me a bottle with a sparkler and a big show. I just want people who respect me, who I can trust, and who will help me grow—fuck as an artist—as a human being.
You’ve said that your parents kept you protected. When did you start to break free from that?
I was maybe 16. In Islam when you’re 16 you’re a woman, you know everything you need to know about life and you can make your own decisions. I made the decision to not wear my hijab anymore and my dad kind of had to stop being on my back. I know he feels like I needed more time to incubate because I did go crazy. There was so much shit to do, so much trouble to get into.
What did you do?
I was partying, I had a fake ID, I was just whilin out, smoking weed—but I’m so over that now! My best friend is two years older than me and she was my only friend who wasn’t Muslim at the time. She was like, "I’m going to do your hair." The first time I came home and I had my eyebrows waxed, my mom merked me. Naturally I have a unibrow! My mom told me specifically, you’re not allowed to get your nails done or your eyebrows.
My parents just wanted me to pay more attention to what was in my heart and in my head rather than what was on me. So when I came home, she was like, “This is the beginning of the end.” Which was true. It’s so fucked up. My parents really did protect me from society. All these things [appearances] became so important to me, it fucked my self-esteem up by 100%. I had to do a crash course on how to be cute, and it just fucked me up because you fail when you cram. I’m grown now, it’s whatever, but there’s not a time when I don’t look at a girl in heels and a pretty dress and nice nails and I’m like, “Coulda been me.” But it just isn’t. I can’t maintain that. I went through that whole phase. I smoked a lot of weed—freshman year in high school was ridiculous. I was so over the top for no reason, I got alcohol poisoning and was dropped off on my parents’ porch. My parents couldn’t figure out what was happening. They were like, “Who are you and who fucked you up!”
In terms of how you dress, do you feel like there’s a push and pull between being a tomboy and how others might want you to dress?
I’ve come full circle. As a kid, being raised the way I was, my parents are really conservative, I’m a daddy’s girl he dressed me in overalls and I wore a hijab and all my clothes are baggy. People would mistake me for a boy at school. For real!
Then when I got into high school I got really insecure and I felt like pretty girls wore tight clothes and comb their baby hair and I didn’t have any of those things. Even into my first year of college I was trying really hard, I would wear tight dresses and heels and I was okay in those things, but I also went through this weird period where I gained like 60lbs.
Really? What happened? Were you stressed?
I don’t know!
The freshman 15? Or 50?
Oh no, I actually didn’t gain anything freshman year. I was so high freshman year; I didn’t gain a pound! But I gained all this weight and I just quit. I was like, I don’t give a fuck about all this cute shit. I don’t want to party. I’m just going to wear boy clothes. I just want to be comfortable. I could try forever to get the flyest heels and the tightest dress and live in Sephora and get my nails done on time, but it’s like, I’ll never be able to execute it the real way because that’s really not me. Some girls, that’s really them and they do it so well. I’m always kind of dirty and I can’t wear white for more than two hours! I grew up climbing trees, I have scars all over my knees from being a roughneck as a kid and playing sports. You just have to stay true to that part of you: I wear boxers and a t-shirt; I’m comfortable as fuck. When I’m uncomfortable—when my clothes or my hair are too tight—I get bitchy.
That’s like me when I’m hungry.
Yes! I will comb my hair, but that other shit is too much to think about. I love fashion and I’m super into it, I love fashion week and I think it’s ill to watch people express themselves. To even watch people imitate others is exciting, because everyone interprets things differently: high fashion, extreme minimalism, some people love excessive everything, and I’m somewhere in the middle.
Do you consider yourself religious now?
With religion it’s full circle again. As a kid, I was so into all my friends who were Muslim at my prep school and that was my lifestyle. But when I got older it wasn’t cool, 9/11 happened and it got awkward and really uncomfortable.
What was the backlash from that like?
Kids are cruel, they’re emotional and they’re confused. They’d say shit like “Arabian Knight” or “terrorist.” Groups of girls would follow me all the way home just to shout at me. My dad would have to come out the house to meet me and curse these girls out. It was just angry energy and I didn’t want that anymore so I just stopped embracing it I guess—which was wrong. I stopped for the wrong reasons.
I got into Christianity really heavily and now I’m not, now I’m back where I started. I feel like Islam makes the most sense to me, but I won’t say, I’m Muslim, because I remember how I used to live. You can’t just fuck around and be like, “I have a huge beard I’m from Philly, I look like Freeway, I’m Muslim.” You can’t just say “Salaam alaikum” or "Masha'Allah" and say I’m Muslim. I would rather practice in private than wear a hijab on the cover of a magazine or in a photoshoot. I don’t want people to feel like I’m dictating a religion and I don’t want to do anything to disrespect the religion. I’m just figuring me out, but still staying true to what’s most comfortable to me.
So you wanna practice in your own way?
Not in my own way, but in my own space. There’s no “own way.” That’s what I love about Islam: it’s very clean cut and there’s no room for interpretation. You just do it or you don’t. It’s why people go on the Hajj to Mecca—everyone looks the same. It’s mandatory to wear the linens they give you, it’s a faceless religion, there’s no picture of Muhammed anywhere.
That’s funny that you like the rigidity of it.
I do because I have no discipline! As I get older I’m finding discipline in small things. I crave discipline, but it’s hard for me to execute it.
I feel you.
Really? You seem on top of shit.
No, I’m not on top of anything!
Haha! Now I’m a lot more comfortable filtering what’s in my world, the music I’m listening to, what I eat, how I dress, I’d rather be more rigid in me and more comfortable in myself, so I guess getting back into Islam is easy because I’m a lot more reclusive than I used to be. There’s more space for rigidity than before.
You’re more reclusive?
A lot more. I’ve always been a loner, but it was more by default because no one liked me, but now I just don’t desire to be around anybody. I went to this industry thing the other night because my homie was giving me a ride home and it was just weird energy. No one was talking to each other but they were, but it was more like they were acting with each other. Everyone was taking pictures and I hate to be photographed, it makes me anxious. I literally get itchy if there are too many people around me. It’s not a bitchy thing, I’m just paranoid and I have social anxiety. All I can ever ask is keep me insulated. I just want to know that I’m safe. I can’t account for what everyone else is doing, I can account for me. If I don’t take this picture then it’s nothing to wonder about.
That’s a tough way to feel when you’re an artist who is expected to play the game and take the pictures and attend the parties where people are looking at you, but they’re also looking over your shoulder to see if someone else is there.
Yeah! I’d rather just do my shows. Onstage I’m fine. I freak out beforehand, but once you get up there, you can’t get off, and it’s for a purpose: for people to experience my sound. Doing shit without a purpose like partying or talking to people for no reason, it’s stupid.
Photos via Interview Mag.
So you were a bartender at several strip clubs. Why not just a normal bar?
You make way more money! Like $500-$600 a night. It’s a higher tipping rate. It’s just the culture! People get drunk, next thing you know there’s money in the air and on the floor and there’s too much for the girls to pick up, so you just pick up that shit and put it in your bucket and the next thing you know, you come up $550 and it’s only 1am. That shit is addictive. It’s weird because it’s now a part of me: for all my weird idiosyncrasies, I love strip club culture. I’ve been bartending since I was 17. It was money based, money and rebellion. And I wanted something that was private. I’m from a small suburban town, so no one would ever look for me in New Jersey and no one who ever came there would know me, or know my parents. I could just get my money and get out. It was an escape almost.
But wasn’t it strange to see men behaving in that way day-in-day-out?
It was bizarre as fuck. It will alter your perception of the world for sure. I’m sure there are people who think they know those men. They don’t know them. The conversations you overhear, the things people tell you because they don’t know you, and meanwhile, for sure they have wives and children.
Have any of your experiences ended up in your songs?
No, not yet. Everyone says that I should, but my songs are more buried. They’re more me-based, rather than experienced-based. But the strip club isn’t that deep to me, it’s not something to sing about, it’s exactly what it looks like on TV. There’s ass and money and music—just enjoy it. It’s not one of those things where you’re like, I’m sad for this girl because I know she has children and she’s trying to make it through school. No, everyone’s having a good fucking time.
You didn’t see any tragedy?
For sure, but I’m into tragedy. It’s probably the most tragic thing ever, but the fact that everyone’s faking it for that consistent amount of time is crazy to me. It’s ridiculous. None of you want to be here, but they get onstage and after two drinks you can tell that they want to be there. It’s different then. The most interesting person in the strip club is the owner.
Because he’s disconnected from everything and everyone. People come in and think they’re his friend, but the day they don’t buy a bottle, they’ll get kicked out, no matter how many thousands of dollars they’ve spent. He doesn’t care, his only object is money. I’ve always been the favorite bartender of the boss—they’re always trying to figure me out, where do I come from, what I’m about—because I wasn’t into boys throwing around money. Watching it rain from the sky is the craziest thing ever, but that shit is stupid to me. I was just there to spectate, make money, and get out.
SZA is competitive by nature. She doesn’t like bowling because she sucks at it and she hates losing—gutterballing it isn’t her style. She considers writing one of her strong suits and so in high school, when her American Lit teacher gave her a D- for a much toiled over paper (“I was like, I’m gonna get an A, I’m about to blow this bitch’s mind”), SZA was pissed.
“You think you know, you studied, you’re grammatically fly as fuck, you used all these fancy synonyms and metaphors… I put everything into it and I got a D-,” says SZA. “She eventually gave me an A- for the course, but I had to work my way up. I think I deserved an A to begin with, but what it taught me was she wanted something different from me. Everyone wants something different from you. Just because you think you’re a good artist, or you like your music, that doesn’t mean anything to anybody else because nobody owes you shit. Even if I made a million dollars, the bank could blow up, the world could shut down and now I’m poor.”
But there is a tentative optimism gilding her fatalistic mindset. “You want to connect in some way, to somebody, and all you can do is be yourself,” she says sagely. “You just have to take this shit second-by-second, hope for the best everyday, and pray if you can.” And then SZA laughs.
Kim is Noisey's Style Editor and she's on Twitter - @theKTB.