SZA took mushrooms for the first time in 2015 while hiking the coastal woodlands of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservatory in Los Angeles.
It had been two years since she’d signed a deal with TDE, Kendrick Lamar’s label, and she had been struggling to create songs for her debut album. The hallucinogens changed that. “I heard everything singing to me, from the grass and flowers to the little leaves,” she recalls. “I was tripped out, crying. It removed that fear barrier. The next day, I felt free — I couldn’t fail.”
Two years later, SZA is seated in Manhattan’s Café Medi with a few roasted (non-psychotropic) mushrooms on her fork, and it’s clear some nerves have returned. Her long-gestating first LP, Ctrl, is hours from being released, and as she shrinks into an oversize blue varsity jacket, SZA fantasizes aloud about skipping that night’s album-listening event taking place just a few blocks away — and halting the album’s release altogether.
“Do you think people are going to love it?” she asks before deciding that she will attend the listening event. The next few days will prove she needn’t have worried. There are fawning reviews from critics (including the coveted “Best New Music” on Pitchfork) and a projected top 10 debut on the Billboard 200. Featuring guests Lamar, Travis Scott and James Fauntleroy, Ctrl is a luxurious record that documents a trying time in SZA’s life as she struggled to find her musical identity, even as her voice was touted in the R&B community. “I wasn’t happy, and I was kind of mean,” she says of the past few years. “It was rooted in anxiety and fear.”
A full-time career in music is still a relatively new concept for the artist born Solána Imani Rowe. Raised Orthodox Muslim in Maplewood, N.J., by her father, a TV producer, and mother, a telecommunications executive, she spent most of her formative years on the gymnastics mat. As captain of her high school team, she considered training for the Olympics, but her interests flipped in 2009, when she began laying down vocals for her brother, a rapper named Mnhattn.
SZA met TDE president Terrence “Punch” Henderson at a 2011 CMJ Music Marathon concert headlined by Lamar; she was working with a streetwear brand, passing out merchandise to VIPs. After self-releasing her first mixtape, See.SZA.Run, in 2012 and S a year later, she signed to TDE and dropped Z, an atmospheric EP with cameos by Chance the Rapper and labelmate Isaiah Rashad, in 2014. That year, SZA also co-wrote Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé’s single “Feeling Myself,” and developed into a vocal powerhouse at her shows. “The records sounded different when she’d perform them because she was onstage singing in full voice,” says Henderson. “She wanted to incorporate that into the music she was recording.”
As her star was rising — she and Drake were the sole featured artists on Rihanna’s Anti in 2016 — SZA struggled with her schedule, which kept her from attending the funeral of an ex-boyfriend in 2016, and she says she never fully processed the death of her grandmother that same year. “I grew resentful of music,” she says, “because I felt like I was [occupying] this other world.” Since her anxiety made her “afraid of the studio,” SZA created much of Ctrl in makeshift Airbnb recording hubs in New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles.
Scheduled release dates for the album came and went, and pressure from fans mounted. The frustration led SZA to tweet “I actually quit” to her 300,000 followers in October 2016, insisting that Henderson can release the album “if he ever feels like it.” SZA admits to feeling “childish” in the moment, adding that the disagreement was resolved that same day. “I’m just way too passionate about my shit,” she says.
Yet the time spent refining the final product paid off: SZA’s songwriting matured, with Z’s esoteric lyrics graduating to more straightforward prose. “The Weekend,” with its crawling bassline and ’90s finger snaps, takes the shame out of being a side chick, while “Supermodel” finds SZA opening up about having revenge sex with a former lover’s pal.
“SZA has this mystical place in her brain where, when the right chords are played, out come the heartfelt lyrics,” says The Antydote, who produced eight songs on Ctrl. “It’s almost as if she’s not conscious when it’s happening.”
SZA says the most autobiographical portions of Ctrl come from battles with low self-esteem and unhealthy relationships. “Every day I grapple between ‘I’m going to get married’ and ‘I’m going to spend the rest of my life alone with a poodle,’” admits the singer, who is single. But she also insists that Ctrl helped her embrace the best version of herself. “I always used to be like, ‘I don’t need to meditate.’ And it’s not true,” she says. “[I’m] starting to care about myself in weird, small ways: changing my diet, meditating and learning to say no. I’m learning to take time to do what I want. I have an abundant amount of love in my life, and I’m grateful for that.”
SZA explains how Ctrl is “an illusion and a commodity that has no value.” She also talks getting tattoos after dinner and finding inspiration in Stevie Wonder, Alabama Shakes and Ella Fitzgerald:
This article originally appeared in the June 24 issue of Billboard.