When I reach SZA on the phone, she is just about to get naked with her friends and smoke a blunt on the beach, an experience that almost perfectly approximates the vibe of her music: cozy but exposed, sensual but funny, and deliberately fuzzy around the edges.
It hasn't been easy living up to the buzzy expectations of being the first woman, and the first R&B artist, signed to the small but influential Los Angeles hip-hop label Top Dawg Entertainment, especially knowing that people like Gwyneth Paltrow and Common are big fans.
Back in April, SZA (pronounced “Sizza,” like the RZA) dropped Z, her first EP with TDE, featuring guest verses from Chance the Rapper and label-mate Kendrick Lamar. Z introduced a much bigger audience to the soulful jams coming from the type of humble, kind-hearted girl who performs in boxers and jerseys, carries gluten-free soy sauce packets in her purse, and wears her Vogue-coveted curls natural, like a lion's mane.
By the end of May, when she announced on Twitter that she'd be doing a surprise performance that night at Red Bull Studios in Santa Monica, the tickets disappear in less than an hour. And that's before anyone knew that Lamar and Mac Miller would end up joining her on stage.
Her lyrics capture both the weird specificity of felt reality — the way sweaty skin sort of smells like Brussels sprouts, the girl who buys two new thongs to impress the boy who doesn't love her — and the universal longings that characterize everyone and anyone's sad little love story, as when the 24-year-old SZA asks an ex, “Are you hating yourself? Do you really hate me?” Her spin on R&B is more chillwave than Kelela’s raw urgency and Jhené Aiko’s hook-friendly pop, but she somehow manages to fit both affecting emotion and silly asides in the same breath, to magical effect.
"We were all thirteen once / Long live tramp stamps and Pepper Ann," she sings, pairing the ultimate symbol of trashy, youthful impulse with the charmingly awkward red-headed 12-year-old of Saturday morning cartoon fame.
Still, the pressure and the scrutiny and the Internet commenters are stressing her out. "It's been a really weird six months," she says, as her she and her friends navigate the beach parking lot. “I think someone made a 'We Hate SZA' page.” All of the unsolicited criticism is bringing back memories of eating lunch alone in the bathroom in high school, of being bullied after 9/11 for being Muslim, of being embarrassed about being alive.
The truth is TDE is a boys' club, she says, and they don't really get it when she says she’s feeling sensitive and overwhelmed.
“They’re more like, 'You have to get over this. You have to stop,'" she says. "Which isn’t really like, helpful for me, but I respect the ideal."
For now, she's going to spend as much time as possible back home in New Jersey, trying to get centered as she finishes up work on her first full-length album, A, set to come out later this year. She’s smoking too much weed, she worries — or else it’s the weed that’s helping her stay grounded. The day before, she’d missed four successive flights to New Orleans before giving up and heading home, even leaving her luggage at the airport.
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Anyway, it's Sunday and she's about to get high on the beach, and that's all that matters right now.
“Just go pee in the water,” she says to one of her friends, and then asks, “We can go in there?” It's an abandoned factory by the water, and they want to check it out, she says. She and her friends head inside to light up, and that's where the connection breaks off.