A trampoline park in Austin isn’t the first place you’d expect to see hundreds of SZA fans. Yet on a Friday night in October, there they were — lined up, excitedly chanting the lyrics to “The Weekend” from the singer-songwriter’s 2017 debut album, Ctrl. And in fact, it wasn’t a completely unexpected sight: SZA had just wrapped her headlining set at the Austin City Limits festival and sent an open invite on Twitter to “randomly jump w me” till 2 a.m. The former competitive gymnast flipped into the foam pit with the utmost joy, just like her fans.
Altitude Trampoline Park, which bills itself as the “world’s best trampoline park,” also might not be where you’d expect to hear a preview of what RCA Records chairman/CEO Peter Edge calls “one of the most important albums of the year.” But on this particular evening, for any attendees listening closely, it was. Terrence “Punch” Henderson, SZA’s manager and president of her label, Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), played “at least 4 songs off the new album on the loud speakers,” she tweeted the following morning. Unlike this night in Austin, though, getting that album out has been far from all fun and games.
When SZA released Ctrl on June 9, 2017, on RCA and TDE, she immediately established herself as alternative R&B’s girl next door and one of the most exciting new voices in music. Sonically, it was the kind of music SZA had always wanted to hear growing up but never quite found outside of herself — an abstract form of R&B influenced by indie and trap music and shaped by lo-fi beats. And lyrically, it was the kind of ultra-relatable songwriting that young people from all walks of life needed: SZA chronicled familiar coming-of-age quandaries, like wondering if your significant other believes you’re enough, or debating if being normal would benefit your relationships, or, well, questioning everything else life throws at you in your 20s. On its cover, the album showed SZA just as she was (and still is): a charismatic, laid-back girl with big curly hair who dressed just as she pleased in a track jacket, bodysuit and tube socks. Not only did she give a legion of awkward Black girls like me a realistic role model — she also struck a chord with the Recording Academy, becoming the most nominated woman at the 2018 Grammy Awards with five nods, including for best new artist. Though she didn’t win, she still shifted the culture: Since debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, Ctrl hasn’t left, spending 281 consecutive weeks on the chart (through the Nov. 5 edition).
With Ctrl, SZA set a new standard for what a “classic album” could look and sound like. But while plenty of buzzy new artists would’ve immediately capitalized on that acclaim with a follow-up, SZA seemed to do the opposite. As the next few years went by, she periodically put out music, but only as a guest on other stars’ tracks — from “The Other Side” with Justin Timberlake to Kali Uchis’ “fue mejor” remix to the pop smash “Kiss Me More” alongside Doja Cat, which earned both artists their first Grammy win earlier this year and reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it SZA’s highest-charting hit to date. Fans’ pent-up demand for her next project didn’t waver, but that enthusiasm was dampened by narratives still circulating on the internet that the album wouldn’t arrive for another five years — or maybe ever.
What fans perhaps didn’t realize was that SZA’s struggle to balance sudden fame and success with personal privacy and sorrow had made her wary of embarking on another personally and professionally demanding album cycle. “I could literally burst into tears and run through this wall at any moment. I am effectively falling apart,” she confesses today. “But it’s not like, the album pressure… It’s just, life is f–king hard. To be expected to do anything at a high level while life is life-ing is f–king crazy. This isn’t meant for a person; it’s meant for a machine.”
Yet amid all that pressure, her creative process never slowed. “Sometimes it feels like she has a divine antenna that funnels ideas to her,” says her engineer and producer, Rob Bisel, of her studio work ethic. “I’ll be playing her beats and for a few minutes she’ll suddenly get really quiet, and then she’ll hop up to the mic and it’s like the ideas just magically flow out of her.” Case in point: In less than two hours, Bisel says, SZA took a groovy, yet grave keyboard loop he had concocted the day before, wrote over it and crafted “I Hate U,” which she released at the end of last year. “Everything about it felt supernatural, from start to finish,” Bisel marvels.
Ideally, SZA says, she’d just create and release music on her own timeline. “I hate the red tape analytics of dropping anything — it’s so stressful,” she grumbles. “I definitely have heard [the term ‘digital service provider’] more this week and last week than I have ever. I don’t like the way it sounds — it sounds stressful and like something that requires a lot of attention and maneuvering. I hate the word ‘single.’ It’s like, ‘What the f–k separates a single from other sh-t on my album that I like? Why does it have to be different?’ ”
Still, she has been working hard to ensure that fans finally get the album they’ve long-awaited this winter. So as a middle finger to that disconcerting system, SZA, who just turned 33, is approaching her new era of music the same way she always has: following her intuition, even if it means surprise after surprise for her fans and team alike. She gave Henderson just four days’ warning that she’d be releasing “Good Days” — her first solo single in two years — on DSPs on Christmas Day 2020, as a subtle birthday tribute to her late grandmother Norma, whose voice appeared throughout Ctrl. In August 2021, she instructed Bisel to upload “I Hate U” and two other songs on an anonymous SoundCloud account the next day at 5 a.m. “She genuinely was excited about the stuff she’d been working on and wanted to share it right away,” Bisel says, rather than “waiting for a label to process it and upload it to streaming services.”
“I only do what I want to do,” SZA says, “and this makes me feel free and safe and unrestricted.” Lately, it seems to have worked in her favor. “Good Days” and “I Hate U” became her first and second solo top 10 hits on the Hot 100, peaking at No. 9 and No. 7, respectively. “Good Days” has since earned 587.3 million official on-demand U.S. streams, according to Luminate, while “I Hate U” also became SZA’s first No. 1 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and peaked at No. 15 on Radio Songs — the highest she has reached as a lead artist on that chart so far.
She has greeted these milestones with a mix of gratitude and astonishment. “That was my first time like, genuinely streaming amongst pop artists, and I was like, ‘Oh, f–k!’ I just feel like I don’t even have a radio presence, [and] I’m just now having two songs that have been playing on the radio consistently,” she says.
But SZA’s way of promoting her new songs has been both savvy and intentional. Over time, she has developed a “signature,” as Henderson calls it, of teasing her next single at the end of her music videos. For example, SZA tacked half of “Good Days” onto the end of the visual for the Ty Dolla $ign-assisted, Neptunes-produced “Hit Different,” three months before the full track was available. After teasing “Shirt” on her Instagram Story in October 2020, she delivered an official snippet at the end of the “Good Days” video in March 2021 before eventually releasing the full-length song in October 2022. “I always drop something that juxtaposes the song that’s attached to it,” she explains, adding that another forthcoming song is attached to the end of “Shirt.”
TikTok users have flocked to those snippets, helping transform them into Hot 100 smashes. “With ‘I Hate U’ and ‘Good Days,’ they told us what they wanted. It wasn’t something that we had to get into a boardroom and say, ‘What’s the next single?’ ” says Carolyn Williams, executive vp at RCA. “They told us what the song was, so for us, it’s great.” Thus, the label didn’t need to be “too heavy-handed” with single promotion and only came in to “amplify” the TikTok traction, servicing the tracks to radio while Brent Smith, SZA’s booking agent at Wasserman, secured headlining festival performances for her like Outside Lands, Global Citizen Festival: Accra and Austin City Limits.
Already, “Shirt” is following a similar trajectory as its predecessors, generating 10.4 million on-demand official streams in the United States in its first three days, according to initial reports to Luminate. Williams jokes that “it’s the longest-running teaser campaign I think we’ve ever had. She teased that record two years ago, and it has been working ever since.” But with another snippet thrown in the mix, a full album looks closer than ever.
It has a title, S.O.S, and is set for a December release, though SZA admits she’s “currently stressed” about meeting it. Until now, she had taken near-total control of the album’s rollout, checking the necessary boxes on her own terms. Now that it’s crunch time, she must grapple with the industry “red tape” that she so despises, from a very different viewpoint than the one she had before Ctrl. Her fans’ rabid devotion (and the long wait for the album itself) has placed her on a pedestal, one that doesn’t feel so steady for someone who, as she puts it, “stumbled into music” and sees herself as “emotionally [and] energetically unequipped” for the life of a major artist. When the album finally arrives, will she find some balance between the demands of the business and her own priorities — or will she eventually hang it all up?
“I think I’m like a beautiful clown in this moment,” SZA says with a laugh. Two graphic brown lines contour the purple sparkles swept across her eyelids — a bold look for her photo shoot today that, she says, is a “new threshold” for her. She’s willing to try new things, but as usual, she won’t compromise her comfort to do so. Changing into a comfy Yankees jersey before our interview, it’s clear that, underneath her glamorous superstar exterior, SZA is still the girl next door she always wanted — but never felt encouraged — to be.
Growing up “around hella white people” in “very suburban” Maplewood, N.J., the artist born Solána Imani Rowe wished to remodel the archetype typically reserved for modest, ordinary and, well, white girls. By “looking dusty by choice” in baggy T-shirts and jeans — which explains why, even during this shoot, she still prefers comfort over couture — and being “crass” and “witty” in her lyrics, she “created the person I wanted to see in the world. That ‘girl next door’ energy, we don’t get to see in Black music. It’s always like ‘homegirl next door,’ ” she says. “I don’t have to fit a phenotype.”
Though she has always believed in following her gut, she still met resistance from loved ones. Her mother was upset she didn’t want to finish college at Delaware State University to study marine biology, but SZA “could tell I should be doing something else,” she remembers. Even her boyfriend at the time warned she might turn into a “deadbeat” if she kept taking on odd jobs, like bartending at a strip club and selling clothes at streetwear brand 10.Deep, instead of finding a career — but as usual, SZA’s instincts didn’t lead her astray, and her gig at 10.Deep put her one step closer to having one.
When the brand sponsored a Kendrick Lamar concert in 2011, she was delivering clothes to her soon-to-be TDE labelmates prior to the show while her friend, who happened to be listening to SZA’s music, was talking her up to Henderson. After listening to her first two self-released EPs, See.SZA.Run and S, he found her “distinctive” voice and MC-like lyricism intriguing enough to sign her in 2013, making her the first lady (literally) of the label’s rap-heavy roster, which included Lamar (who recently left TDE for his own venture, pgLang), ScHoolboy Q, Jay Rock and Ab-Soul. And he didn’t have to deconstruct her image in order to help mold her into a superstar.
“People [were] telling Punch all the time, ‘Why does she dress like this? Why don’t you polish her up a little bit? She would do so well,’ ” SZA recalls, mocking her critics’ arrogant tone. “But he f–ked with me the way I was and I f–ked with me the way I was.”
Now, Henderson says SZA has already accomplished what he wanted her to when he signed her a decade ago. “My goal is always to make classic albums, and from there, everything else is extra to me, personally,” he says. “And I think we did that with Ctrl.”
Her producer ThankGod4Cody believes her second album will have the same kind of cultural impact. He was working with TDE artist Isaiah Rashad before eventually linking with SZA and producing her 2014 track “Sobriety.” “From there,” he says, “it blossomed into a friendship and a working relationship” that has since spawned two Grammy-nominated hits, the Travis Scott-assisted “Love Galore” and “The Weekend.” And while he remembers SZA writing those songs “pretty fast,” he’s even more impressed with the speed and shrewdness of her pen game this time around. “The lyrics are so geniusly simple,” he says of “I Hate U.” “And she’ll write so fast that it scares her — like, ‘Is it actually this fire?’ ”
Their collective efforts have created SZA’s most daring body of work yet, which Henderson plays for me at TDE’s studios. Instrumentally, S.O.S is the most captivating music she has ever made, her beloved lo-fi beats sharing space with surf rock within the same track, a grunge record and an acoustic guitar-driven ballad coexisting without either sounding out of place. And while SZA says she was a “more carefree writer” during her Ctrl sessions, she has sharpened her writing since. S.O.S is an album that certainly justifies a five-year wait. But SZA still wonders if the hardships she endured to raise her profile between Ctrl and now were worth it.
In May 2019, SZA was rehearsing for DJ Khaled’s star-studded Saturday Night Live performance as her maternal grandmother, Norma, was dying. “I wish I went to spend time with her. She was catching a medical jet from St. Louis to New Jersey because she spent the rest of her days at my parents’ house; she passed at my mom’s house [in June],” she reflects. “That last week when she was really ill, I went to go perform with DJ Khaled, who I love, at SNL… And in hindsight, that was so dumb. I just wish I spent those last moments with her at home. That was a hard lesson. Like, ‘Great, I perform for a minute and 30 seconds on SNL and I lost my grandma for the rest of my life.’ ”
Any artist who’s placed on a pedestal — as SZA literally was in 2017 at the Brooklyn Museum, where a statue of her, alongside the likes of Metro Boomin and 21 Savage, was part of Spotify’s RapCaviar exhibit — is perceived more as a god than a human and subject to immense scrutiny, along with sometimes unreasonable expectations from their fans. All of which can make it tough to create anything, much less something of value. “I have an album to turn in at the end of the month, but will that actually matter by the time I get back to New Jersey and my grandma doesn’t remember me? I don’t know,” she wonders aloud about her paternal grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s, her voice trailing off. “And whose fault would that be? Mine. It’s not y’all fault for having me here — it’s my choice. And those are the things I’m grappling with.”
Sometimes, she just needs to let off some steam, like when she replied to a fan’s Instagram comment in July asking about the album’s whereabouts by saying, “It’s 100% Punch and RCA on this one. I wanted the summer. They wanted more time. Atp [at this point] I’m jus tryna have a good time stress free lol.” That comment fueled fans’ frustration, and they made Henderson out to be public enemy No. 1, flooding his Instagram comments and Twitter mentions with incessant demands for the album.
“It’s funny to me because I get where it’s coming from — it’s coming out of love,” says Henderson. “She’s saying something on those records that touched somebody, so they feel so strongly connected to it that they want more and tend to get impatient.” If her impulsive reply suggested SZA was angry with him, he insists such feelings pass and, “a couple hours later, we’re onto something else.”
And anyway, he explains, plenty of unavoidable barriers made recording this album difficult: SZA’s crazy touring schedule, deaths in her family, COVID-19 and everything else life has thrown at SZA didn’t give her consistent time to record — until now. “Recently, she went on a run and did about maybe 10 records in a week-and-a-half to two weeks,” says Henderson. “It’s like a scorer in an NBA game. You may run off 15 points in a row. It has been a lot of starting and stopping and then we finally got into that rhythm.”
Productive as she has been lately, SZA admits that kind of rhythm may not be tenable for her long term. She sighs deeply. “I feel like music, in this capacity, I don’t see longevity,” she confesses. “I like to create, I like to write, I like to sing, and I like to share. But I don’t know if chasing after superstardom or whatever I’m supposed to be doing right now is sustainable for me or for anybody. I’mma take a good swing at it, and I’mma give ’em my absolute best.”
For now, she’s just trying to focus on bettering her craft. Delivering scene-stealing verses on genre-spanning collaborations — like DJ Khaled’s “Beautiful,” on which she features alongside Future, and which is now Grammy-nominated for best melodic rap performance — is one way SZA has worked to become more versatile. “Any opportunities that can get me to try something new, I would definitely try,” she says. She has also stepped up her performance game by working with “Fullout Cortland” Brown — Doja Cat’s go-to choreographer, who SZA first met on the “Kiss Me More” set — to overcome her insecurity onstage and bring a “wow” factor, spotlighting more than just her captivating vocals. “Right now, I’m in that stage where I can prove to myself that I can do choreography and design a stage and have a theme and be whoever I want — I don’t just have to be Miss Natural Raw Energy,” she says confidently. “I want to design myself the way I can be.”
And who knows how SZA will design the next stage of her life. “I could be a biologist and I’mma discover a creature that didn’t exist before. I could be a farmer tomorrow and create my own strain of asparagus,” she says assuredly, as we joke about “SZAsparagus” becoming the hottest new celebrity-branded item at luxury supermarket Erewhon. It might be her sun in Scorpio, but that certainty she’ll excel at whatever she sets her mind to seems to also give her the extra confidence boost she needs for her music career’s next phase — even if it doesn’t always feel as sustainable or organic as her potential produce brand.
“I know that I am that girl where I will figure it out,” she says proudly. “Just like before I was an artist.”