Release Date: Apr 8, 2014
Record label: Top Dawg
Trying to delineate the sound of SZA's new album Z is perhaps a futile exercise, chasing rainbows and all that. The Maplewood, New Jersey native (real name Solana Rowe) and latest addition to the Cali-based Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) roster readily describes herself as "weird" with contrasting musical tastes — Bjork, Animal Collective, Miles Davis, Sade — and the full-length album runs along an idiosyncratic electro R&B, soul-pop vibe. The crossover potential within these ten tracks is huge; breezy, light yet commanding vocals hit with impact and stick in your cranium long after the 43-minute runtime is through.
Review Summary: Bring on the thorny crown“It’s the beginning,” sings Solana Rowe in the final moments of Z, her debut album. Things sure are looking up for the artist known as SZA; interviews have made it clear she isn’t quite satisfied with her own portfolio just yet. It instead seems she’s preparing herself for a big landing with her next release, whenever that happens- a fact which initially casts Z in a less agreeable light.
There’s a moment on SZA’s Z—hiding in gossamer synth and Electro-pop crossover—where the dream takes a wrenching turn. “Gun fighting, fatality, boy / Hell fire, boy, I stay for eternity,” the Top Dawg rookie wails on the bridge of “HiiiJack.” Her 10-song EP plays out as a hazy, genderized story of unrequited love, one with constant shifts in vignettes and vantage points. But on a tonally upbeat “HiiiJack,” things become grimly cyclical, and SZA’s position as a victim trapped in a sequence of soured relationships and unmet expectations is suddenly much more defenseless.
As the first woman to sign with Top Dawg Entertainment, SZA, aka New Jersey singer-songwriter Solana Rowe, would better fit into the label as a non-rapper if she had the average rapper’s panache. Instead, she comes across as the last person who would ever have delusions of grandeur. She knows she potentially has the reach of Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock, not to mention Isaiah Rashad, her fellow 2013 TDE signing.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. SZA isn't your average female R&B artist for more than one reason. Raised as an Orthodox Muslim in a New Jersey, SZA only started making music a few years ago. Her early work certainly caught the eye as she was signed to arguably the hottest label in the world - Top Dawg Entertainment.
The release of Z, Solana Rowe's Top Dawg debut, trailed that of labelmate ScHoolboy Q's Oxymoron, on which she contributed to "His & Her Friend" with her typically dreamy-drowsy melodies. Previously, Rowe made quiet waves with the self-released, low bit-rate digital download S, as well as fantasy-like video for the track "Ice Moon," an alternately booming and fluttering track. For Z, she sticks to elusiveness with a soft focus over largely amorphous productions granted by the likes of Toro y Moi and Mac Miller, as well as Emile Haynie (Lana Del Rey, Bruno Mars), the last of whom handles three of the tracks within the second half.
You can interpret the opening line of SZA’s new album as both mission statement and preemptive defense. It plays backward first — “dnim fo etats a si ytiralc” — then forward — “clarity is a state of mind” — as if to illustrate its own point. And it’s true. Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who cuts himself off mid-sentence, only to then reflect on the content of what wasn’t said? Or someone who makes quick associative leaps from thought to thought, vocalizing the end result but skipping over the logical connectors that got her there? Listening to SZA can feel a bit like this.
SZA, aka Solana Rowe, is among a handful of young singers making music that achieves eerie dissonance by placing traditional R&B vocals into electronic abstraction. The New Jersey native is signed to Kendrick Lamar's Top Dawg label, so her debut LP arrives with high expectations. The trick is ensuring the emphasis on texture doesn't overwhelm the songs' underlying emotional force, which sometimes happens on Z: intricate production casts a pleasant spell but fails to provide memorable moments.
When thinking back on the early careers of Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, and Ab-Soul—the household names on the label Top Dawg Entertainment—one element that sticks out is how easy it was to understand each rapper's point of view: Kendrick as the slick-talking, perceptive narrator with a fixation on the Reagan era of the 1980s, Schoolboy as the cocky street-hustler who turns gangsta rap on its head, Ab-Soul as the paranoid hippie. With recent signee Isaiah Rashad, the label has kept it up, presenting an assured artist in the lineage of the South's great thinking-man's MCs. But the ability, or perhaps desire, to be understood immediately eludes TDE's newest artist SZA, the first woman and R&B singer to sign to the label.
Top Dawg Entertainment is aiming to take over. Not just the rap industry, but TDE is looking to make a splash in the R&B world with new signee SZA. If RZA, GZA, and Smoke DZA weren’t enough, we’re now throwing SZA into the mix. With Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and now Isaiah Rashad taking the rap world by storm, another artist coming through with a breakthrough release could put distance between TDE and the rest of the competition.
Yes, SZA is the first female artist signed to Top Dawg Entertainment, the vanguard L.A. hip-hop label behind Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q. But her album "Z" represents high ambitions for the label. It's a lean, dreamy and genre-destroying debut that steers the TDE ship into new waters. The 23 ….
“I love being called an R&B singer,” Solana “SZA” Rowe tweeted last year, “except not at fucking all. ” Tagging her Soundcloud offerings as “alternative,” “glitter trap,” and most bluntly, “not R&B,” the singer clearly chafes at being pigeonholed, telling an interviewer that “it’s easier to label me R&B because I’m a woman of color. ” But while fighting against the expectations of twentysomething women of color who make music is admirable, her 10-song Z is not nearly as alternative as it aims to be.
opinion byJEAN-LUC MARSH With SZA, ambience is everything. Her soundscapes often skew towards the mellifluous and enticing, doused in layers of honey and inching forward with a leisurely sweetness. This polished exterior spans throughout Z, making for a smooth descent into SZA’s unhurried universe. It helps that her voice is the equivalent of a chloroform-soaked doily, capable of lulling even the stubborn insomniac into a drowsy daze.