As I prepared for this week’s post, my thoughts turned to events several years ago. I was working for independent record companies who seemed to always be on the lookout for female vocalists. At one time I remember one company that worked with four that did not go well. Well, after a few years I actually stumbled upon a very good female artist. The young lady possessed extraordinary talent, and seemed ready for bigger opportunities that I could provide. However, things did not go as planned and she did not get the big break that all aspiring artists need. After listening to several interviews of our featured artist SZA, I was reminded of that young woman from years ago. I listened to SZA’s new album Ctrl, and immediately understood she was an artist with a story to tell.
Solána Rowe (SZA) was born on November 8, 1989, in St. Louis, Missouri, United States before later relocating to Maplewood, New Jersey. Her father was an executive producer at CNN, while her mother was an executive at AT&T. Rowe was born to a Christian mother and a Muslim father. She was raised as an “Orthodox Muslim”. She attended a “Muslim prep school” and secondary school everyday after her “regular school.” After the September 11 attacks, Rowe was subject to bullying, leading her to stop wearing her hijab. SZA continues to practice Islam.
Rowe went to Essex County College to study liberal arts, with the intention to go to graduate school and find her calling in life. The plan never materialized, and she then took random jobs in order to make money. Rowe formed her stage name from the Supreme Alphabet, taking influence from rapper RZA, the last two letters in her name stand for Zig-zag and Allah, while the first letter Rowe developed herself switching it from savior to “sovereign.”
Before SZA released Ctrl on June 9, 2017, she released two mixtapes and an EP titled Z. SZA first met members of Top Dawg Entertainment during the CMJ 2011, when her boyfriend’s clothing company sponsored a show in which Kendrick Lamar was performing. A friend attending the show with her foisted early SZA songs onto TDE president Terrence “Punch” Henderson, who liked the material and stayed in touch. SZA began recording music by accident; after recording one song, she continued the process until she decided she should “make something out of it.” SZA recorded the songs with her friend and neighbor in which they “stole a bunch of beats off the Internet.” On October 29, 2012, SZA released her début self-released EP entitled See.SZA.Run, which featured production from brandUn DeShay, APSuperProducer, amongst others.
When I learned about SZA’s start in the music industry, I immediately started to think about the young woman I wrote about at the start of this post. I introduced her to a talent scout who recognized her talent, much like “Punch” Henderson when first hearing SZA’s material. One problem he identified was that the young woman was twenty-seven years old. Even though SZA is currently the same age, she has invested more than five years into her recording career. Nevertheless, I believe SZA’s age is a major asset for her going forward. Allow me to explain.
Ctrl is an album that many in the music industry feel is a very good collection of songs. The album has a confessional theme, which touch upon SZA’s personal experiences of love. The albums lyrics were noted as being “honest” and “often comically blunt”. Also, the music is not just a collection of stolen beats from the internet. The album is well constructed. I was listening to a recent radio interview with SZA where the interviewer praised her for really delivering a great album. That interview led me to give it a listen well before the time I would feature SZA in Weekly Music Commentary. Age and experience contribute to the artistic endeavor as we can hear throughout Ctrl.
If you want to pinpoint in a few words a category for Ctrl, you might find it difficult. I found one description that seemed to help someone who has yet to listen to the album. “Ctrl is predominantly an R&B album which draws influences from neo soul and indie rock. The album has a precise sonic methodology, which takes influence from pop, hip-hop and electronic genres. The production was characterised as predominantly hip-hop-influenced with hints of soul and pop”. That might sound like a lot of different sounds thrown together, but believe me Ctrl is well crafted.
One of the funny stories being told about how we came to have Ctrl the album as it is today, is making the rounds of many publications. In an interview with The Guardian, SZA revealed how her record company had to confiscate her hard drive: “They just took my hard drive from me. That was all. I just kept fucking everything up. I just kept moving shit around. I was choosing from 150, 200 songs, so I’m just like, who knows what’s good any more?” She also detailed how her anxiety issues effected her songwriting process: “I freestyle everything, all the way down. And I listen back and think, what’s shitty? And if something’s too shitty and I can’t put my finger on it, and I think, wow this sucks to me, then I get way frustrated, and usually scrap the song.
If Ctrl goes on to major awards and possible Grammy nominations, that story will be one of the highlights for years to come. Even though it sounds funny how record executives got fed up and took SZA’s hard drive, there is possibly something else most now are overlooking. Yes, SZA may have several great albums of music we have yet to hear. Stay tuned!