On her breakout 2017 album, Ctrl, R&B singer-songwriter SZA exulted in the anxieties and taboos of 21st century young womanhood: body image, unattached sex, smoking weed -- in short, as she sang on “Normal Girl,” the idea that it’s OK to not be “the type of girl you take home to your mama.” The 2018 Rule Breaker -- the only woman on heavyweight hip-hop label TDE -- quickly gained a devoted fan base and widespread acclaim. That she left the Grammys empty-handed (after receiving five nominations, including best new artist) in January was considered one of the ceremony's great injustices, but SZA's year only got better: She crossed the country on a headlining tour, played Coachella's main stage and scored her biggest hit yet in “All the Stars,” a collaboration with TDE labelmate Kendrick Lamar for his Black Panther soundtrack, which reached No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. “I know I'm initially and forever misunderstood, and I think that’s my driving force,” says SZA. “You don't have to learn to love yourself right fucking now. You can totally make it a lifelong thing.”
You were on your own for years before getting signed. Was that difficult?
The first [label] said, “She’s too green. I don't know why she's here. Maybe she could be Jennifer Hudson.” That was weird and painful. Nobody saw me the way I saw myself, but I was OK with that. I'm like, “This makes sense to me.”
What was it like playing the main stage at Coachella?
Terrifying! But it was a learning experience: You need to drink more water, you need to stop smoking Backwoods [blunts], you need to hit the treadmill for 30 minutes before every show. That was probably the first time my voice and my nerves slapped me at the same time, like, “Bitch, you need to move and learn something!”
You performed on the same stage as Beyoncé. Did you see her set?
I did. That shit looked televised, and I was there in person! I was crying by the time I saw her. She was the first person to ever take a real chance on me, letting me just write and waste her time for a month. [SZA co-wrote the 2014 Nicki Minaj - Beyoncé collaboration “Feeling Myself.”] I’ve said some weird shit around Beyoncé, and she never judged me.
With the #MeToo movement and Time's Up, women's voices are now being heard in a new way. Has that influenced the music you're writing?
Definitely. Being in a boys club [like TDE], I'm never the one that doesn't speak up. If anyone in the group's talking shit that's loose about women, I'm definitely like, “What was that? What you mean? Explain.”
How's your next album shaping up?
I was trying to figure out: “Do I put out the songs that didn't make it on Ctrl? Do I put out new shit? Do I blend this shit?” I need a winter project, and I have a lot of material. I just need to stop being scared. But I was scared the first time. I just care so much. I'm always going to give so many fucks.