SZA’s launch into the limelight has been nothing if unconventional. The 25-year-old singer, born Solána Rowe, tumbled into the world of music rather haphazardly, trading the title college dropout for Top Dawg Entertainment’s leading lady in under a year.
After shirking school for a string of listless day jobs back in 2012, she slapped together her inaugural project, See.SZA.Run, in roughly one night. Another EP and several months later, she’d scored a spot as the first and only female on the TDE roster, the same label Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q call home.
In the years since, she’s put out a buzzy 2014 breakout, Z, and lent her shimmery, slow-fizz R&B to a stack of features, including a collab with Chance the Rapper and a turn on Rihanna’s Anti opener, “Consideration.” Now, she’s poised to conquer 2016 with a gutsy debut album, A, due out “while everyone is still in a bathing suit,” she tells EW.
“It’s been the most fun, difficult experience,” SZA says. “This album is just straight up laying everything to bed. I’m talking a lot of grimy s—, but it’s truth. I’m exposing a lot of skeletons of mine.”
Aside from airing her dirty laundry, the record marks more than a few big steps for the St. Louis-born songstress: her first official induction to the industry, and the first time she’s putting herself at the forefront.
“I think I spent a lot of time hiding vocally, being super low and being super metaphorical because I was scared to get ugly and deal with everything,” she says. “I welcome fear now… it’s my job to not be no punk.”
SZA’s been relatively silent about what the impending record entails, but promises it will be a “family affair,” hinting at features from her TDE clan. She shared the first taste of new work Wednesday night: a silken remake of Drake and PARTYNEXTDOOR’s “Come and See Me” newly christened as “twoAM.”
For more on what the singer’s plotting for 2016, EW spoke with SZA, discussing A, TDE’s “shade room,” and what it’s like to work with Rihanna. Listen to “twoAM” below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me about A, your debut album.
SZA: I’ve called it an EP forever because it made me feel way less responsible. It’s longer than an EP for sure, but I still don’t want to say the word album because that’s impending doom. It’s just a really long ass EP, we’ll say that.
[Grammy award-winning singer] James Fauntleroy once told me that you have to learn the rules to break the rules. I spent a whole bunch of time learning the rules, just really diving in. I spent a week on Lake Michigan with no phone, no service, just getting lost in this project. I feel like people don’t necessarily know me, but I’m down to share now.
What do you want to say on this album about who you are?
This album is just straight up laying everything to bed. I’m talking a lot of grimy s—, but it’s truth. I’m exposing a lot of skeletons of mine—things that were tough to talk about and tough to even accept were happening. I feel like when you make your discomfort available to everyone else, it allows everyone to deal with the discomfort. Right now we’re in such a state as Americans, as a society, that we don’t want to deal with anything that’s uncomfortable. We don’t want to deal with any of our ugliness. I’m just getting ugly. All my dirty laundry is on the line. There’s a song where I talk about sleeping with my ex-boyfriend’s friend because he purposefully left me on Valentine’s Day, which will be the first time he hears about it, and I have a whole track dedicated to vaginas. It’s called “Doves In the Wind.”
Are you nervous?
I am, but I’m not. I know it’s necessary. You gotta spring clean. I’m so overdue for a spring cleaning. This is like, life cleaning.
You say you did a lot more investing in music history and the practice of songwriting. How does it compare to your previous EPs?
I recorded most of my first EP the night before it came out. I was kind of winging it. The second EP, I was still winging it, but it was the first time I had access to live musicians. On S, it was very New York, lots of synth-heavy producers. When it was time for Z, I was working with TDE, so I had exposure to all these different musicians that played all these different sounds live. Kendrick [Lamar] and all the boys love live music. It was more me experimenting and trying to figure out how to use those tools. I think A is the fusion of all the things I’ve experienced, my synthesized trap feel mixed with all of the organic knowledge and gifts I’ve picked up along the way from all these amazing, incredible musicians.
Z was out in 2014, so it’s been two years now. How has your outlook and sound changed since then?
I think I spent a lot of time hiding vocally, being super low and being super metaphorical because I was scared to get ugly and deal with everything. I welcome fear now, and I didn’t before.
You were on “Consideration” from Rihanna’s Anti earlier this year. What was that experience like?
She was an angel. She was way warmer than I expected. You have this stigma of incredibly pretty, popular women, and you almost convince yourself before that they hate you until you get there. She’s awesome and warm and human and super chill. She’s a home girl, for real. I made a song and she respected it and she vibed with me, and now it’s out in the world. [She taught me] to go with your gut at all times. You just gotta go with whatever you feel.
What has it been like working with Kendrick and the rest of the TDE crew? What have you learned from them coming in as a new artist?
I’ve learned so much. Kendrick [Lamar] is super grounded in the most non-abrasive, non-exclusive way. Everybody has their own personalities and their own strengths. I’ve learned something from literally everyone on this label. Every is 100 percent chock full of personality and character. [Schoolboy] Q is hilarious and super wise, Ab-Soul is super wise in general and kind of clairvoyant. Jay Rock is warm and inviting. They have so much energy, and they’ll put you in your favorite mood.
How do you differentiate yourself within that group?
I’m super bouncy and kind of all over the place. At first it’s a headache, but then it becomes a very welcoming headache. It’s sort of that bond between all of us. I’m like that little sister that everyone puts up with. What people don’t know is that TDE is a comedy house. We have a group chat called “the TDE shade room” where the boys just roast each other all day. They’re so funny, especially Kendrick and Q. No one really knows how funny Kendrick is. He’ll just break into a monologue that’s hilarious and you have no idea it’s coming.
You’re the first and only female on the TDE roster. Could you speak about the significance of that in your life?
It’s weird, you could make it a thing to be the only girl, or you could just focus on being great and not having people even remember that you’re different. As an individual woman, I always feel like yes, I need to be planted and empowered and firm. But in the scheme of things, it’s my job to not be a punk. As important as it is to represent the strong, rounded woman I am in the external world, it’s important to represent that as a part of TDE or on a song. It’s not the time for me to come in and be timid or let things go by. It’s just given me tougher skin.
In the past, you explored a lot of things that didn’t really resonate with you—dance, gymnastics, even college—but with music you’ve made a lot of progress in a short amount of time. What struck you about this career path?
I have a very short attention span. Things that help me grow help me understand how I can apply them to my brain and to myself as a person. That interests me. When you’re at the studio and you’re 10 hours in, and this song is not any better than it was eight hours ago, you’re like, “I want to leave. I want to pick a new beat. Forget it.” But that discipline to force yourself to stay and work through it and complete it, that’s self work. It’s character building, and that was something I didn’t know how to generate by myself. It’s really forced me to be present and work through everything that’s happening in the moment. It’s a freeing feeling, and it’s very addictive—chasing the better, chasing the growth, chasing learning. There’s so much learning to do in music.