By Upma Kapoor
You do not have to actively listen to hip hop or rap to even acknowledge Top Dawg Entertainment’s domination in the music industry. Some of summer’s most esteemed anthems, ranging from “Collard Greens” to the classic “Swimming Pools,” are from TDE’s members. There is Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Kendrick Lamar, yet somehow we have spent seasons slipping over SZA.
Her name is obviously reminiscent of Wu-Tang’s RZA, which lends itself to further intrigue. Why shouldn’t it? The label signed SZA to the collective after her two EPs, See.SZA.Run and S. Her affiliation with the label is immediately critical because apart from being the first singer outside the emcee game, she is the first woman ever to be signed on by Top Dawg. Top Dawg, as the name suggests, is known to recruit top talent; it should be no surprise that after gaining significant traction within the rap industry, they are seeking out a new tradition with SZA.
Her debut with TDE this past year, “Z,” is the ambitiously experimental and dreamy R&B you never knew you needed. Where Schoolboy Q gives you a reason to rage and be the man of the year, and the Weeknd forces you to painfully reflect on any evening activity and sexual frustration, SZA guides you into this lusciously hazy aftermath that audibly resurrects the blur between myth and memory.
It seems almost reductive to categorize the album as exclusively R&B. With guests like Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, and production assistance from Toro Y Moi and Emile Hayne, the range in contribution alone speaks to the influences on this album: think Saul Williams’s verse paired with Bjork’s fearlessness in using her voice as an instrument. Her lyrics alone require their own literary analysis in rhyme, lending to discussions on everything from coming-of-age and nostalgia to sexuality and comfort. You can be driven to intense introspection while listening to “Babylon (feat. Kendrick Lamar)” with the chorus, “Are you hating yourself? Do you really hate me?” one minute, to then somehow seamlessly transition into the groove and affection cooed on “Sweet November.”
“Z” thrives on these paradoxes. The lyrics seem to meditate between confusion and lovelorn loss, almost suggesting some sort of gradual self-destruction; yet, this debut is nothing short of empowering and a tribute to the talent that SZA possesses and the tradition that TDE so carefully cultivates within their collective.
As she sings on “Child’s Play,” SZA has built a fantasy. The only difference between what she sings and what may be happening is the overwhelming presence of reality. The world is watching SZA surpass this pinnacle of success and reinvent the notion of being an outlier in a hip-hop heavy, male-centric industry. Her triumph began with TDE, but I doubt it ends here. There has never been a better time to start paying attention to the happenings in R&B, hip hop, and rap; you can comfortably linger in the intersections when listening to SZA.
- “Omega” – It is the last track on the album and such an astounding culmination with SZA’s smooth vocals paired with this downtempo beat. She constantly cites that this song is a “beginning,” a foreshadowing to another future magnum opus that will surpass the risks taken on “Z.”
- “Warm Winds (feat. Isaiah Rashad)” – With a chorus that hauntingly loops on the words, “Gardens, flowers, warm winds,” how could you not?
- “Babylon (feat. Kendrick Lamar)” – The mysticism behind deciphering whether the speaker is choosing between suicide or baptism is haunting; the music video itself parallels the film The House and forces the listener to reconsider anxiety, frustration, and self-doubt altogether.
- “Child’s Play (feat. Chance the Rapper)” – Are you really going to doubt any traces of Acid Rap on this track?
Upma is a recent graduate of the University of Mary Washington. She has taught kids in a kindergarten classroom how to cat daddy and high schoolers how to analyze poetry; in between those activities, she still finds time to write about her parents and public health. You can follow her on Twitter at @upmaaa and read her blog at upmaforbreakfast.wordpress.com.
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