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She's a dove in the wind

Reggie Ugwu, Feb 3 2018, 23:58 IST
SZA

SZA

As a songwriter, SZA is known for her acute self-awareness - she writes about the mechanics of desire and insecurity with such a penetrating gaze, her music can feel almost indecent to listen to. But that extraordinary instinct for self-examination can cause complications, too. The R&B singer, born Solána Rowe, second-guessed her debut album so thoroughly that it was delayed for a year. The head of her record label says that self-doubt is her "kryptonite."

In a rehearsal space on the edge of Manhattan in December, where the Los Angeles-based artiste was practising for a performance on Saturday Night Live, her kryptonite announced itself. She recalled the stinging experience of working on her album 'Ctrl', released last year.

Not so sure

"My anxiety had been telling me the whole time that it sucked," said the singer, 27, soft-spoken and unreserved in a fluorescent-lit office. In an oversized woolly sweater, with one foot in a chunky Balenciaga sneaker slung reflexively over the top of a wooden desk, she could still enumerate the record's flaws.

Its sonic palette was too shallow, she said; its concepts and word choices were too redundant; its hooks could have been stronger. At one point while recording it, she threatened on Twitter to quit music altogether. When her label intervened and scheduled the album for release, she said, she "just wanted to hurry up and fail."

But the opposite happened. 'Ctrl' emerged as one of the year's most critically acclaimed albums and became a talisman for young women, particularly young women of colour, who saw themselves in its unflinching parables of sexual liberation and emotional liability. At the 60th annual Grammy Awards, she was the most nominated woman, with five nods, including best new artist.

After last year's ceremony, where Beyoncé's best album faced defeat and Frank Ocean's abstention prompted sharp criticism and sparked the #GrammysSoWhite hashtag, SZA is at the forefront of a wave of ethnically diverse young artistes (including the 19-year-old singer Khalid and Donald Glover's hip-hop adjacent alter ego Childish Gambino) who swept nominations in many of the top categories this year.

All the accolades have left her inner critic bereft. SZA said the experience - of persistent self-suspicion colliding with overwhelming external praise - had so unmoored her that she came up with a name for the condition: "dysmorphia."

"You wonder, 'Are you delusional? Is something wrong with you?'" she said. "I never imagined anything like this would happen in a million years."

Part of her still can't. "I guess I'll have to re-evaluate my life," she said, asked what she'll do if she ends up winning a Grammy. A compliment, for her, has become a kind of crisis, too. "Because then the dysmorphia would really be hitting a peak."

In an industry where the youngest stars radiate the most heat, SZA was a relatively late bloomer. She self-released her first EP at 22 and came to music as a refuge from jobs as a bartender and a sales assistant on the floor at Sephora. She was born to a Catholic communications executive mother and a Muslim television producer father in St. Louis. The family moved to suburban Maplewood, New Jersey, when she was 10.

As a child, her life was circumscribed by gymnastics practice and Islamic prep school, realms where discipline and accountability were sacrosanct. Music was freeing, low pressure. "I was just kind of stumbling through it, very novice," she said of the first songs she wrote at the urging of her brother, a rapper. "It was music made in a closet with beats stolen off the internet."

In 2011, SZA was working part-time for a streetwear company in New York when she met the president of Top Dawg Entertainment, Terrence Henderson, known as Punch. He was in town for a concert headlined by the label's star artiste, Kendrick Lamar, which happened to be sponsored by her employer. Mr. Henderson heard SZA's music - a friend took the initiative and played it for him, to the singer's horror - and didn't bite at first. But he kept in touch and ended up signing her three years later.

The two EPs SZA released on her own in the interim - 'See.SZA.Run' (2012) and 'S' (2013) - were early salvos in a revolution in R&B. They shared as much DNA with hip-hop, Björk and left-of-centre electronic music of artistes like Toro y Moi and Purity Ring, as they did with Brandy or Jill Scott, inspiring comparisons to contemporary iconoclasts like the Weeknd and Frank Ocean.

Her lyrics at the time were a world away from the open diary of 'Ctrl'. Songs like 'Time Travel Undone' and 'Aftermath' were saturated in oblique imagery and abstract symbolism. And, as if to complete the obfuscation, her vocals were submerged in reverb and atmospherics, giving them a disembodied quality.

When critics accused her of mistaking style for substance, she took it to heart. "People would say (expletive) like 'I don't know who she is, I don't know what she's talking about, this is boring,' " SZA said. "And I realised that I was bored with myself. I was just feeling and emoting with no structure and no intent."

As real as it gets

On 'Ctrl', her objectives were transparency and humanity. She wanted to exhibit a red-blooded mind and body at work, to give voice to everything that she had once concealed. On 'Supermodel', the album's opening track, she jabs an absent beau with spiteful taunts ("You was a temporary lover") before turning the knife on herself ("Why am I so easy to forget?"). On the single 'Drew Barrymore', a confession of putative sins ("I'm sorry I'm not more ladylike, I'm sorry I don't shave my legs at night") becomes a defiant rallying cry.

The writer and producer Issa Rae, who used multiple songs from 'Ctrl' in Season 2 of her series Insecure, said it was SZA's sharp turn toward candour that made her take notice. Like Insecure - and the surprise blockbuster of last summer, the movie Girls Trip - the specificity of 'Ctrl' gave it particular resonance among a generation of young black women who have been underserved by mainstream entertainment.

SZA said 'Ctrl' was inspired in part by stereotypes about overbold black women and her desire to reclaim them in her personal life. It's a theme she had previewed before, in songs that ended up on projects by Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé ('Feeling Myself', 2014) and Rihanna ('Consideration', 2016).

"I don't feel ashamed to be loud, which is an argument I've had with lots of men, who thought I was too sassy and unladylike," she said. "A lot of black women get that rap, 'You're loud, and unsavoury, or crass or abrasive.' But I feel like that (expletive) is beautiful as hell."

The album's unblinking, value-neutral depictions of sex and lust fed into a wider thread of visible female musicians asserting their sexual agency in their art. Like recent work by Cardi B, Tove Lo and Rihanna, it disavowed ingrained scripts in popular music, in which promiscuous men play and virtuous women get played. In her videos for 'Supermodel' and 'The Weekend', she seduces the camera without being objectified by it.

"I think a lot of sexuality was only taboo before because women weren't allowed to talk about it - but women aren't waiting for permission right now," SZA said.

Though she forgot to vote for herself at the Grammys. She was up against the rapper Lil Uzi Vert and the singers Julia Michaels, Alessia Cara and Khalid - SZA said she was encouraged that the Recording Academy had recognised so many artistes of different racial backgrounds. "I think music is honest and will make you do honest things," she said.

Her nominations have inspired her to rededicate herself to making more ambitious music, including a planned collaboration with the producer Mark Ronson ('Uptown Funk') and Tame Impala's Kevin Parker, with whom she said she had recorded three songs.

Since 'Ctrl' was released, her concerts and meet-and-greets have become a kind a group therapy. Fans tell her about their love lives, deepest fears and private traumas. "I thought that these were just my lonely thoughts and that I was going to put them out to pasture," SZA said. "But they weren't out to pasture. Other people said, 'Hey, I have lonely thoughts, too.'"

The outpouring has shifted the artiste's estimation of her work. If "dysmorphia" is a distortion of perspective, the treatment may simply be recognising that the distortion is there, and surrounding yourself with reliable witnesses. Recently, they've given her inner critic some competition. "It's like God is slapping you in the face," SZA said of the response to 'Ctrl'. Then she translated what God had to say: "There's something happening and you need to be grateful and you need to be present. I'm sorry that you're scared, but this is your job."

"Ready?"

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