21 apr 2023

How SZA emerged as today’s biggest R’n’B star

Kendrick Lamar, Doja Cat, Cardi B, and Rihanna’s collaborator has become one of the most respected R’n’B artists in three EPs and two albums. Celebrated by both the music press and the public, the singer SZA will perform at the Accor Arena in Paris, on Monday, June 5th.

1. SOS: SZA’s sublime cry for help


Rare are the times when an artist skyrocketed like she did. On December 9th, 2022, those who didn’t know SZA discovered her, perched on a huge diving board, staring at the ocean that stretches as far as the eye can see below her feet. The album cover made by Daniel Sandwald was directly inspired by a stolen photograph of Princess Diana Spencer in Portofino, a fishing village southeast of Genoa, in 1997. The album, entitled SOS, unfolds a 23-track cry for help that completes the transformation of the sad young woman into a R’n’B star, respected, and even acclaimed by her peers. Lucile Commeaux, journalist at Radio France, evoked “the density of a long-matured album, uneven, and difficult to listen to in one go […], which articulates and extends the possibilities of pop music and love relationships while exhausting them.” On the other side of the Atlantic, the website Pitchfork gave SOS a score of 8.7/10 and stated out that “SZA has mastered the art of the inner monologue to perfection. Her style recalls the jazzy structure of Joni Mitchell and the technical prowess of Minnie Riperton.” This second album was as well-acclaimed as the first one, CTRL, released five years earlier. Fragile, raw, erotic, frustrated, desperate, melancholic, sensual, anxious… SZA would rather unveils parts of herself in sober and personal musical works than in interviews, which she blithely hates. Avoiding being associated with anyone has given her the keys to the kingdom of contemporary R’n’B.

2. A former gymnast turned into an alternative R’n’B queen


Solána Imani Rowe was born in 1989 on the banks of the Mississippi River, in St. Louis, Missouri, and grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey, near Philadelphia and New York. Coming from a well-off family with a father who was an executive producer at CNN and a mother who worked as an executive at a telephone company, the young girl was promised a future as a professional gymnast. But she also produced music on her own… until the members of the Top Dawg label spotted her in the early 2010s. They may have just discovered the future star of neo-soul… However, it is in ethereal alternative R’n’B genre that she has eventually blossomed, transforming the colorful laments of the 1990s into much duller ballads. Now, we are all dancing while being deeply melancholic and we are reciting the poems of a grieving hip-hop princess. Solána Rowe signed her contract in 2013, two years after she met Top Dawg. In the meantime, she became SZA – pronounced “sizza” – as a tribute to Wu-Tang Clan rapper RZA and as a reference to the “supreme alphabet” of the Five-Percent Nation, a branch of the Nation of Islam advocating for African Americans’ rights, founded in 1964 by a certain Clarence 13X, a veteran of the Korean War. SZA has thus joined one of the most promising labels in the United States, which supervises artists such as Kendrick Lamar, SiR, ScHoolboy Q, or Jay Rock… She was the only woman. See.SZA.Run in 2012, S in 2013 and Z in 2014… Three EPs were needed before the release of her first album, CTRL, for which she got four nominations at the 2018 Grammy Awards. While acclaimed by the critic, his debut album CTRL failed to win any awards, but the setback led to the emergence of a community of fans entirely dedicated to the artist’s cause. The launch of the hashtag “JusticeForSZA” a few hours after the ceremony is an obvious proof of that support. From that moment, the singer’ venues would sell out and she would multiple her collaborations with some of the biggest names of the industry…

3. References to pop culture and a collection of prestigious collaborations


SZA remains a child of pop culture. The American singer cites Wes Anderson, Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, whom she referred to in her track Kill Bill (2022), or the actress Drew Barrymore, the emblematic star of the 2000s revealed in E.T and acclaimed in Charlie’s Angels (2000), to whom she also dedicated a track. In 2016, SZA composed the track LouAnne Johnson, a tribute to the former U.S. Marine who later became a teacher in California. Renamed Consideration, the track was offered to Rihanna on a silver platter and SZA has since then multiplied the most prestigious collaborations. The most notable ones are I Do with Cardi B (2018) and the pop hit Power Is Power with The Weeknd and Travis Scott featured on the soundtrack of the iconic series Game of Thrones. Yet, two key collaborations will genuinely transform her career – her duet with Kendrick Lamar on All the Stars, featured on the soundtrack of the Marvel movie Black Panther in 2018, and her track Kiss Me More (2021) with the sultry Doja Cat, which accumulated nearly a million views five hours only after its release on YouTube… compared to the 400 million views today.


SZA will perform at the Accor Arena in Paris on June 5th.