Z * SZA * Alt. R&B * April 8, 2014

It is hard to know what to say about SZA.  The artist and the person are so intertwined that you feel like if you understand one, you understand the other.

Born 1990 in St. Louis to a Muslim father and Christian mother, Solana Rowe has led a complicated and interesting life.  A few highlights?  Her father was an executive producer at CNN and her mother was an exec at AT&T.  She wore a hijab until 9/11 (she removed it because of bullying).  Before failing her first year of higher education, she attended three different schools.  She went back to major in marine biology.  One of her influences is RZA.  Her name stands for the terms sovereign, zig-zag, and Allah.  Whatever picture you formed of her and the music she makes, you are probably right.

So we will jump into the review because, honestly, you probably don’t know what to expect.

01.  Ur – The first few lines of lyrics are going to tell you what you are in for with SZA; introspection and depth.  She spends the first song talking to the cynics amongst us who believe that nothing is as it seems primarily because they live lies themselves.  Clarity is a state of mind/Freedom ain’t real, who’s sold you that lie?/I ain’t buying it/ No matter what the price.  This song is so packed with meaning that you almost have to re-listen just to make sure you caught it all.  Her voice is interesting in a good way; she is never hard to understand but the delivery of her vocals comes of as coming out a cloud of weed smoke.  The production matches perfectly; a hazy, lazy sound that drifts along with her vocals yet enhances her message.

02.  Child’s Play – SZA goes from telling us to let go of our cynicism to letting us know that there was a time that we didn’t pretend for any reason but fun; childhood.  The song seems to be a cross between looking for the innocence of life and the innocence of love.  The lyrics here are so packed with meaning that a simple line like I got L’s on my record has a triple meaning.  This song could be classified as a duet because Chance the Rapper has as much time on the track as SZA, with the two singing a repeated couplet at the end.  The entrance of his verse is interesting; it comes in before SZA finished hers, like he couldn’t wait for her to finish.  While it can throw some listeners off into thinking that the lines he spits are throwaways, it works.  The production is similar to the first song, sounding like the auditory equivalent of a blunt.

03.  Julia – Just when you think that you have her figured out, SZA steps out of her stupor with the aid of a production that sounds like it was ripped out of a mid-80’s club.  You can imagine someone dancing to this without understand the depth of the lyrics.  A song about wanting to have a better relationship with her father, it is worded in such a way that it could be interpreted as being about a relationship with an emotionally distant lover.  While other songs have tried this dichotomy, there is always a line or two in them that doesn’t sound right when applied to one of the situations.  This does not have that problem.  The downside here is that SZA’s voice is not quite strong enough to compete with the more dynamic and energetic production and she almost fades into the background at times.

04.  Warm Winds – With a production that starts like an acid trip and ends in a jazz-laced hotbox, the production slips back into the acrid smoke.  The song is divided into two clear sections that have a distinct sound but are joined by an underlying disjointed rhythm that ebbs and flows in the background of both.  The first half the song is about throwing off fear the fear of making mistakes, accepting that you aren’t perfect, and reminding other that they aren’t either so they shouldn’t judge you too harshly.  She articulates that mistakes are inevitable and that they are just as important to who we are as the things we get right.  The second half of the song is about being in love with someone who makes you feel free and how that can highlight your insecurities.  While both halves are great on their own, it seems like they should have been two separate tracks despite that they have the similar underlying theme of facing fear.  It should be noted that Isiah Rashad features here, but he really could have been anyone as he had no stand alone verse and his whispy backing vocals are barely distinguishable from SZA’s.

05.  HiiiJack – While we haven’t left our drug-induced production stupor, we are switching the supply.  A chopped and screwed beat give this track the lightness that can seem a little at odds with its subject matter.  This one is about a relationship that she realizes will inevitably and being willing to do anything to make it keep going (hence, she is hijacking him).  This is another track that demands a re-listen because of the depth packed into simplistic sounding lines.  SZA’s raspy vocals are nice, but they still have problems competing with a more upbeat tempo.  It doesn’t detract much from the song, however, as the listener can clearly understand the words she sings.

06.  Green Mile – This song is about being in a relationship that ends badly, thus being shot through the heart.  It is probably one of the easiest songs to understand, lyrically, of the entire album.  The metaphor of gunplay carries well throughout the song and is made increasingly interesting when she suggests that her current predicament is karma for a “murder” she committed years earlier.  The production here is similar to what you hear from other alternative R&B artists like Tinashe and Jhené Aiko; dark and brooding…except for the last 50 seconds.  This is where the songs falls apart a little because this is essentially an interlude that has been attached to the Green Mile track.  The tempo and content are completely different and the effect of the joining is rather jarring.

07.  Babylon – Probably the track that caught the most attention because it features Kendrick Lamar.  The production here sound sexy and, if it were used by another artist, it would have been a pretty good babymaker.  Instead what we get is a song about a relationship that has crumbled to almost nothing and she feels like she and her lover are both expecting her to be the one to save it.  It is an extremely packed track lyrically with a lot of religious allusions in it.

The elephant in the room seems to be the Kendrick Lamar verse and I will admit, I’m split about how to feel about it.  Since this is the first version of the track I heard, I didn’t know until recently that the video version doesn’t contain this feature. His lyrical work is good and theme representative (minus three or four obligatory lines about how good of an MC he is). I actually like that he seems to be playing the part of SZA’s lover and telling her that he feels like he’s the one being burdened by the relationship.  There is just something about the video version of this song that seems to work a little better.  The one sidedness of the VV just seems to have a greater impact and the somberness of SZA’s vocals aren’t broken by Lamar’s more boisterous delivery.

08.  Sweet November – The production here immediately throws you back to some 70’s funk.  The Marvin Gaye sample is something to behold and it makes you want to find a Caddy and blast this out the windows (or with the top down).  The concept is one of the more simple on the album; she is messing around with a man who she knows will mistreat her (because he has before) and she is trying to ignore the voice inside that is telling her to end it. SZA’s voice is probably at its best on this track.  She sounds comfortable with the beatwork and it seems to be adding a little extra oomph to her usually more laidback vocals.

09.  Shattered Ring – With a production that sounds like she is about to meet someone in the town square at high noon, she is telling a man that she intends to make him love her by shooting his sweet spot.  While the song itself and SZA’s vocals are both forceful, there seems to be an underlying understanding that this is not going to last and that what they are feeling is being caused by how drunk we are and that they spent the night dancing.  The singular last note is especially haunting; it is long and drawn out turning into something creepily artificial before it ends.

10.  Omega – An appropriate name for the last song on the album, her vocal work continues the artificial sound that the last note of Shattered Ring began.  At times it seems like there is a heavy amount of autotune on this one, but that is because there is a distinct absence of it anywhere else on the album and using it stands out.  This is a song of affirmation and renewal, as SZA is asking God to look down on her in favor now that she is ready to let go of her sins and heartbreaks.  This is the most straightforward song, lyrically, as there are few allusions or metaphors.  The production seems to be at odds with the theme, however, as the artificial sounds almost make the religious message come across as ironic, but the producer is Emile Hayne and he’s just partial to that type of sound.

There is something so refreshing about an album that is as lyrically dynamic as this.  If SZA were a rapper, I guarantee that there would be hip-hop heads all around the world declaring her to be “the truth”.  There is so much thought put into every song that it makes its relatively short 40-minute run time seem double that (in a good way).  The production is stellar here as well and almost never falters in helping to highlight the mood the lyrics are trying to convey.  SZA’s intent vocals can be hit or miss, but everything she sings comes across as genuine.  While this is not an album for everyone and every mood (there is nothing particularly fun about this one), it is one that everyone should listen to at least once.

Rating:  4.0