Photo: Johan Sandberg
Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B, Maroon 5, ScHoolboy Q, DRAM, Rihanna, Isaiah Rashad, Travis Scott, Lorde. These are a few of the high-profile artists SZA has collaborated with since she first set foot on the scene in 2012. SZA’s constant fervor of collaboration continues to this day, at times often shifting the spotlight from the main artist, such as on Lamar’s “All The Stars.” Yet, chances are that SZA is now the one to be making the headlines, as opposed to being a feature in another artist’s work.
The shift from highly sought out featured artist to the queen of Top Dawg Entertainment can likely be attributed to SZA’s phenomenal 2017 debut studio album, Ctrl. The universally acclaimed album was a masterful demonstration of neo-soul and R&B that would unsurprisingly go platinum and earn the artist five Grammy nominations: Best R&B Performance for “The Weekend,” Best R&B song for “Supermodel,” Best Rap/Sung Performance for “Love Galore,” Best Urban Contemporary Album, and Best New Artist. It would be no understatement to say that with Ctrl, SZA established herself as a progenitor in a new wave of soul and R&B.
While it may now be commonplace for SZA’s name to come readily to mind in a conversation concerning today’s best artists, it was hardly the case a mere few years ago. Before SZA was the queen of TDE, she was an R&B artist out of St. Louis with a grand vision for the genre and herself, and we were here at Ones To Watch were awaiting the day this promising artist would take her seat atop the throne of R&B and TDE.
Born Solána Imani Rowe in St. Louis Missouri and informed by a childhood of John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Lauryn Hill, Björk, and a heavy-diet of Wu-Tang Clan, Rowe would eventually adopt the stage name SZA, finding inspiration in de facto Wu-Tang leader RZA and the Supreme Alphabet. SZA’s earliest stroke of luck is the sort that seems almost to be good to be true. Kendrick Lamar happened to be performing a show in 2011 that Rowe’s boyfriend’s clothing company was sponsoring, leading to SZA finding an early fan in TDE president Terrence “Punch” Henderson. Now, this is the point where one would expect the next sentence to read something along the lines of, “and the rest was history…,” but SZA would spend the coming years grinding through a series of self-releases to become the household name she is today.
Photo: Victoria Will
In 2012, SZA would receive her first taste of critical acclaim with the release of See.SZA.Run. The self-released EP, which is still available on the artist’s original Soundcloud, is to this day an impressive foray into the world of alternative R&B through its impressive use of lyricism and “beats stolen from the internet.” The St. Louis artist must have grown a palate for critical acclaim, as SZA would return in less than half-a-year with the beautifully understated follow-up to See.SZA.Run, S. With two highly-acclaimed EP drops over the course of six months, it’s hard to imagine how the year could get any better for this artist who was actively curating a cult-like following.
Cue the summer of 2013 – TDE makes good on the promise they saw in an artist with no officially-released music that they met two years back, signing SZA to their label. Unsurprisingly, the following year would be SZA’s busiest yet, signaling the beginning of a series of collaborations with such heavy-hitting artists as Chance the Rapper, 50 Cent, Isaiah Rashad, and of course, Mr. Top Dawg himself, Kendrick Lamar.
As a matter of fact, it was word of SZA’s debut studio EP Z, by way of lead single “Babylon” featuring Kendrick Lamar, that first turned our eyes here at Ones To Watch toward this new voice in R&B. And before we could even fully process the full extent of what this newfound voice meant for the genre, SZA proved herself to us and the world at large that “Babylon” was no mere fluke with the stunning visual for the Isaiah Rashad-featured “Warm Winds.”
For many, 2014’s Z served as the main entry point into SZA’s unique rendition of alternative R&B. While SZA surely at this point had become accustomed to receiving critical acclaim, including ours as well as, ranking it among the ten best albums of the year, in Z she found her first real taste of one of her own projects achieving commercial success. With the success of Z, everything seemed poised for SZA to make her next lurch forward as an artist, to climb to even greater heights. The newly signed TDE starlet announced what was to be her follow-up EP to Z, A, which in turn would become her debut full-length album, Ctrl.
Now for those of you living in the present day with any passing knowledge of SZA, you may notice that there seems to be an odd three-year gap present between the release of Z and Ctrl. While a three-year delay for an artist who had yet to put out their full-length debut may seem like an industry death sentence, it was anything but for SZA. Between the release of Z and Ctrl, SZA would work on songs for and with such prolific artists as Beyoncé and Rihanna, fellow rising artist Childish Major, and continue to release her own phenomenal one-offs–take a single listen to “Sobriety” or “Moodring” if you need any proof. But what exactly led to a three-year wait on what was shaping up to be such a highly-anticipated album?
To put it simply, the reason for the near three-year wait for Ctrl was SZA’s deeply-rooted sense of perfection. The album, originally scheduled for release in 2015, would be constantly reworked by SZA herself until the record company took her hard drive from her in late 2017. SZA’s desire to achieve a sense of thematic and sonic perfection may have resulted in fans having to bide their time to see the full extent of what the artist was capable for quite some time, but it undeniably resulted in the closest thing to a near-perfect debut album imaginable.
So where exactly is SZA now? Well, if you want to see for yourself, make sure to catch the five-time Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling artist who is currently embarking on a cross-country tour with Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, and fellow Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates on The Championship Tour.