SZA: The record company took my hard drive from me
The R&B singer endorsed by Beyonc and Kendrick Lamar explains why her much delayed album was finally and forcibly released
Last year, Solna Rowe walked away from music for good. She was 25, and she had been putting out EPs as SZA (say it like scissor) since 2012, when rapper/producer Terrence Punch Henderson stumbled across some early tracks and signed her up to Top Dawg Entertainment, the label thats also home to Kendrick Lamar, Isaiah Rashad and Schoolboy Q. In the time she had been working, she had co-written Feeling Myself for Beyonc and Nicki Minaj, and Antis opening track Consideration for Rihanna. But the path to a debut album proper had been long, slow and tortuous. It was promised at the end of 2015, then at the start of 2016. Last October, she had had enough. I actually quit, Rowe tweeted. @iamstillpunch [Henderson] can release my album if he ever feels like it. Yall be blessed.
But its 10 months later and SZA is still here. Her debut album, Ctrl, has finally been released, and it has turned out to be one of the most inventive and intimate records of the year, an astonishing collection of styles and stories that feels like a hazy conversation over a long night with a close friend. Its often brutal honesty about sex and relationships and self-esteem for women in their 20s has found a dedicated and devoted fanbase the new season of Insecure, for example, uses tracks from it in multiple episodes.
So how serious was she really about quitting? Super serious, she insists today, in the back room of a house in south London, where shes curled up in an armchair, texting friends and family back home. I dont feel subscribed to anything. So I feel like, when this isnt fun, Im not gonna do it any more. When I cant grow, Im not gonna do it any more. But its still fun. She laughs knowingly. Theres a pause. For now.
Two things are evident about the world around Rowe. The first is that she doesnt do anything she doesnt want to do. Its a relatively new attitude, she says, which gives her some sense of control over her life. Ive started practising carte blanche just doing whatever the fuck I feel like doing, as long as I do it with good intention. So I dont feel crunched, she explains. Now with all this new shit around me, I dont always know whats negotiable. I sometimes just assume, because things are very official and shiny and very fast-paced and very organised and very not what they were She tails off.
The second is that chaos seems to swirl around her. Over the course of our conversation, people come and go, wanting a minute of her time. A very drunk woman tries to get her number, disappears, comes back into the room and then starts crying; we move the interview to the bathroom, then get locked in. Is it always like this, I ask? A member of her entourage says no, at the exact same moment Rowe yells, delightedly, Yes!
In person Rowe is frank and funny, and SZA fans love her openness and warmth. The night before we meet, she does a Q&A session for a room full of mostly female fans who plainly adore her, including Chewing Gums Michaela Coel. Much of Ctrl feels like a series of messages between friends and lovers. Let me tell you a secret/ I been secretly banging your homeboy, she sings on album opener Supermodel. Im sorry Im not more ladylike/ Im sorry I dont shave my legs at night, she sings on Drew Barrymore, which dives right into a Netflix-and-chill scenario: Somebody get the tacos, somebody spark the blunt/ Lets start the Narcos off at episode one. But is she just telling stories, or is it all true? Unfortunately, it is, yeah, she sighs.
The one problem with laying her life bare like this is that she thinks her mother doesnt like it. Rowe was born in Missouri and raised in New Jersey, and there are reports online that she was raised in a strict Muslim household. The reality is slightly more complicated than that. My mom didnt let me eat sugar or candy until I was older, she explains. She didnt let me perm my hair till I was old as fuck. And I begged her to. My mom is a Pan-Africanist. My dad is still Orthodox Sunni Muslim, but hes super fun. He worked in television for years. He was a Black Panther. So wait, they werent that strict? She laughs. No, they are strict. I just didnt care! I made it very difficult for them.
Rowe says that when she broke away from Islam as a teenager, she stopped speaking to her father for a while. Her mother, who appears on Ctrl in a series of spoken-word interludes, hasnt mentioned the album at all to her daughter. I know she probably thinks Im very exposed. My mother is probably mortified actually about my album, but she loves me so much. She wouldnt tell you? No, because its a personal opinion. And we already kinda had this talk when Beyonc dropped her album. My mom was like, I feel naked listening to her album. I just feel like theres some things you shouldnt say to the world. That was already after I had made Supermodel and Doves in the Wind, and those songs were done.