It’s hard to think of a current musician who has had a greater impact on how R&B sounds today than SZA. Currently one of the most visible and versatile figures in music, the artist born Solána Imani Rowe has been a tonic since she emerged in 2012 with her self-released ‘See.SZA.Run’ EP. Anyone who bet on her becoming a generational artist would now be quids in: funny, smart and wickedly charismatic, her songs – which blend R&B with lo-fi indie and trap flourishes – glow with specific aches, lusts, and anxieties. Even if her music is grounded in a hardened perspective on young adulthood, it’s never heavy-going.
In December, she dropped ‘SOS’, which, in a five-star review, NME described as “a phenomenal record that barely puts a foot wrong and raises the bar even higher than she set it before.” Its commercial success has moved SZA into the same league as pop superstars: the album’s current nine weeks at Number One on the Billboard 200 has given it the longest stretch atop the US chart for an album by a woman in nearly seven years, since Adele’s blockbuster ‘25’. By consistently using a combination of emotional honesty, humour and experimental arrangements, SZA’s music has resonated loudly with millions.
Also straddling these two states – a devil-may-care attitude and pure, unbridled emotional chaos – was her 2017 debut proper ‘Ctrl’, a compelling portrait of a woman in flux. The album was full of depth and wide-ranging sonic choices, with songs that were soft with desire but thickened by SZA’s own pride. “I get so lonely I forget what I’m worth / We get so lonely we pretend that this works,” she sang on the moving and mature ‘Drew Barrymore’, a beautiful evocation of how debilitating – and frustrating – relationship anxiety can be.
The world’s leading pop stars revere her for her ambitious, deeply personal lyricism: “It’s SZA being one of the greatest songwriters I’ve ever witnessed fa [sic] me,” Lizzo tweeted in October 2021; “SZA is just the most brutally honest, beautiful songwriter,” Olivia Rodrigo previously told Travis Mills on his Apple Music radio show. “I love songs where women talk about being insecure,” she added. “I feel like that’s such a scary thing to talk about, but it’s something we all feel so deeply.” SZA’s appeal is clear: she makes music for lonely people hiding in the shadows, as well as anthems to soundtrack their uber-confident, main character moments.
In ‘Ctrl’s wake, the gravity of contemporary R&B shifted. SZA became the most nominated woman at the 2018 Grammy Awards with five nods, including one for Best New Artist. Though she didn’t win, the album has maintained significant mainstream popularity, spending 296 consecutive weeks on the Billboard 200 after debuting at Number Three. Six years on from release, SZA’s influence is being felt by a new generation of young, bright artists navigating their early 20s, where every failure or personal setback can feel like a bullet to the heart.
“When ‘Ctrl’ dropped, it literally altered my brain chemistry,” London R&B upstart Bellah explains to NME today. “I think SZA is truly cut from a different cloth. Her artistry is one of the most authentic things I’ve witnessed. No tricks, no gimmicks, just good music. I’ve learnt that succeeding whilst being 100% me is not only possible but it is the best thing I can do.”
‘Babylon’, SZA’s 2014 collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, was a foundational track for Bellah, who describes becoming a fan of SZA as a “reset” in terms of the artistic goals she has for herself. You can hear SZA’s candour in the unguarded bliss of Bellah’s recent ‘Adultsville’ EP, a project that embraces messy, complicated and unresolved drama in all its transformative power. Similarly, Baby Rose affirms that discovering ‘Babylon’ was a formative moment in her career: “I remember feeling like SZA was a radical light on her own wave and appreciating her for it,” she says today.
SZA’s continued impact on emerging artists is to do with how she consistently seeks to expand her music into new, unpredictable directions. The near-unanimous critical acclaim that followed ‘SOS’ centred largely on the vivid detailing of each song; you only have to look to the album’s glittering centrepiece, ‘Kill Bill’. The track’s woozy, loping rhythm is juxtaposed with lyrics that recall a country-style murder ballad: “I might kill my ex, not the best idea”, she repeats with nonchalant bluntness, her words landing with all the subtlety of a record scratch. SZA’s inner monologue bounces off violent emotions with more rational thoughts, indulging in a personal revenge fantasy; the kicker at the end of the chorus, however, is heart-wrenching: “I’d rather be in jail than alone.”
In a previous NME interview, rapper Doechii – who is labelmates with SZA at the influential Top Dawg Entertainment – spoke to the power, influence and audacity of SZA’s exacting and fearless songwriting. “She always finds a really cool, beautiful way to say what we’re all thinking. That’s something I strive for, and I think that’s what every artist wants: we really want to get the purest form of our emotions out.”
Dreamer Isioma, who appeared in the NME 100 2022, concurs: “As a young artist, SZA makes me feel better about saying wild shit,” says the Chicago-based singer-songwriter and guitarist. “She encourages me to speak my mind and not give a fuck.”
Growing up living around the world including Chicago, Lagos, and parts of the UK, Isioma began writing music as a teenager while looking to put down roots. After coming across SZA’s music online, what stood out to them was her “raw” emotional range and the way her delivery balances delicate moments and more aggressive ones. “‘SZA type beat’ was easily a top five YouTube search of mine when I first started making music,” he adds.
Speaking recently on the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, SZA described ‘SOS’ and its unfiltered takes on relationships, personal growth and intrusive thoughts as a collection of “bizarre acts of self embarrassment.” The self-deprecating lens through which she sees her own work is embraced by young artists, many of whom are beginning their careers from a place of vulnerability that SZA has carved out for them in R&B. “By being very honest, SZA encourages me and a lot of others to find their voice and get specific with intention and storytelling,” says Baby Rose.
Last July, in a rare UK appearance, SZA headlined Wireless Festival at London’s Finsbury Park. Having not played in the country since she hit up the capital’s Lovebox Festival in 2018 – where her set was cut after four songs due to lateness – for fans, a sense of unreality hung over the performance. Recent NME cover stars FLO were in the audience at Wireless; the trio have shared footage to social media of them singing along, visibly teary-eyed, to ‘Ctrl’ highlight ‘Love Galore’. “SZA constantly pushes music culture forward. We love her vision”, they tell NME.
“SZA encourages me to speak my mind and not give a fuck” – Dreamer Isioma
SZA is acknowledged as a respected but infrequent live performer, and is shrouded in a level of mystique – she rarely gives interviews – that is almost impossible to conjure in the age of social media. Therefore, her decision to return to the stage last year was widely celebrated. The same can be said about the 20-date US tour she embarked on earlier this week (February 21), which includes her first-ever arena shows; beyond toying with the idea of early retirement, she has also been honest about her experiences in the industry and the toll that playing live has on her wellbeing.
“I’m learning a lot, but sometimes I feel like I can’t grow in this space. Like, I have to do something different to grow,” she told Flaunt magazine in 2018, before suggesting that her second album – which turned out to be ‘SOS’ – would be her last. Artists like Bellah and Baby Rose see SZA as a role model for her artistic autonomy; she has made a point of being open with her audience about her struggles, and is therefore not misunderstood as being standoffish or inaccessible. If anything, her willingness to look beyond industry expectations and timelines is admirable, and is offering new acts an example as to how they can shape their careers on their own terms.
There’s no getting away from the fact that SZA is a singular artist: her music is a channel for deep connection, as she speaks to her listeners with a kind of emotional incisiveness that is both rare and eternal. Her future as both a touring and recording artist may be in limbo, but the startling humanity of her music has endured – and will continue to inspire the next generation of R&B innovators. “When music can directly speak to your experiences, it feels a little transcendent,” Bellah concludes. “SZA makes people feel seen.”