A year ago, if you lived in New York and were running low on moisturizer, SZA might have been your girl. Back then she was working the floor at the cosmetics retail chain Sephora, "standing around with an ear piece in [and] helping people out with their face cream."
Today, her job is a little more high pressure. The 24-year-old singer is on the verge of releasing one of the year's most anticipated debuts, "Z," which arrives Tuesday, care of white-hot label home Top Dawg Entertainment. The project features cameos by Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper, with production duties handled by the likes of Emile Hayne, Mac Miller, DJ Dahi and Toro Y Moi.
"Z" sounds like the future, or at least SZA's vision of one — a genre agnostic utopia dripping with mood and SZA's own gossamer vocals. "Z" straddles the line between minimalist R&B, '80s synth pop and soul. It sounds like Jill Scott in a pillow fight with Jessy Lanza. It sounds like a Frank Ocean fever dream.
"I didn't expect people to like my music or to take to it the way they have," SZA says. "After 'See.SZA.Run' and 'S,' I originally thought I would do another EP and that it would be this little thing… but then everything blew up. It's different now. I feel like I owe people more."
She first met the TDE guys during CMJ 2011, when her boyfriend's clothing company sponsored a show where Lamar was playing. A friend attending the show with her foisted early SZA songs onto TDE president Terrence "Punch" Henderson, who liked what he heard and stayed in touch.
On the tightly knit, California-based hip-hop label— also home to Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and Isaiah Rashad— SZA is an obvious outlier: its first singer, East Coast native and female. Being the only girl in a boys club, she admits, was difficult at first.
"I'm like this random girl from a small town and I annunciate all my words and I wear dirty Chucks and my hair is never combed; I don't think they knew what to make of me," SZA says. "At first, I think they looked at me like an alien or something. 'Your music is weird, you're weird, but we like you.'"
She recorded the bulk of "Z" in Carson, CA last summer, paired up in a "little club house" with Rashad, a fellow TDE newcomer from Tennessee. The experience gave SZA a crucial ally within the crew, and the two have since made a habit of collaborating on each other's songs. SZA sang the hook on Rashad's 2013 single "Ronnie Drake" and Rashad appears on the "Z" track "Warm Winds."
"Him and all his producers would kick open my door in the morning and jump on the bed and light blunts at 9 AM," she recalls. "Now we're each other's security blanket, in a way. We just get each other really well."
As her profile increases, and Sephora-scented memories of her normal life fade, SZA is getting used to the pressure that the spotlight brings. She says making "Z" was the hardest thing she's ever had to do, an experience that pushed her to dig deep and demonstrate that she is the exceptional artist she was first cracked up to be and more.
With more people watching her now than ever, summer camp is officially over.
"I don't know if I'm perceived as a ball of hype, or if ni--as really fuck with me," she says. "All I know is I have a duty to deliver something brilliant, the best that I can come up with. This project is all of me delivered in the most vivid way possible."