SZA’s Ruination Brought Her Everything

(Courtesy of NY Times)
Her moody, enigmatic music made her a megastar. Can she learn to live with success?

If you’re footloose and floating up Pacific Coast Highway, a blink beyond the emerald front lawn of Pepperdine University, you’ll sense a sharp rise above sea level. The world’s deepest ocean appears on your left, a vast and breathing GIF. Moons charm bloodstreams, and dolphins model fortitude. Hawks plunge for fat mackerel, and riptides drag fools far out and forever under waves that from the shore look like peace and possibility.

This surf mesmerized Sandra Dee’s Gidget and framed the volleyball game in “She’s All That.” This is where on date night Travis and Kylie dip in a steakhouse tucked in back of the Country Mart. We’re uphill from Venice and Santa Monica’s crowded bike paths, mobile fruterías and fragile tents of the unhoused. Palm fronds spread fire, skimming the winds of a swiftly tilting climate. Up here, when the white homies emit surly locals-only vibes, who gives a good goddamn? Because Malibu is a mood. The air feels clean, and prospects, like summer in California, do feel endless.

This treacherous stretch of coastline that for centuries was deftly navigated by the Chumash beckons the empaths the wannabes the billionaires the birders the hard-soled surfers and people for whom making music is an extreme sport. From Usher to Miley to Minaj to Lizzo to Avril to Drake to Gaga to Sinatra to Sean Combs to Shawn Carter and Beyoncé — Malibu lures makers of American pop, for days or decades.

SZA has found a home here too. “I always dreamed of being by the water,” she told me, when I visited her in December. “I have a vision of being at the ocean and just like, thanking my God, and singing, and vibing.” SZA, whose real name is Solána Imani Rowe, is not one to let dreams go long without execution. “I used to drive up here and hike this exact trail to go to Escondido Falls,” she said, “and I didn’t even realize that until I had already been in here for like a week. I was like, Is this where I used to walk? I used to look at these houses and be like, I wonder who lives here.”

Over the last six years, in a crowded and deeply talented field, SZA has become a dominant figure in American pop. “Ctrl,”her June 2017 debut album — with its opaline “Broken Clocks,” heartsick “Love Galore” and wanton “The Weekend” — has been on the Billboard 200 chart for 294 weeks and counting, making it the second-longest-charting R.&B. album by a woman in the list’s history. (Only Rihanna’s 2016 “ANTI,” with 352 weeks and counting, has been there longer.) Last year, she and Doja Cat won a Grammy for best pop/duo performance for their collaborative hit “Kiss Me More.” But SZA resists some of the terms and conditions of being a superstar.

For one thing, she dislikes music’s segregated categories — pop, R.&B., Latin, country, etc. And the brutal glad-handing required by the music industry runs contrary to her intermittent introversion. In SZA’s view, the industry leans into the classism of celebrating only those Black musicians “who play 50 instruments, went to all the right schools, did all the right programs and talked to all the right people,” she said. “I don’t like that. Black excellence is NBA Youngboy putting out projects and speaking his heart and screaming into a microphone.”

SZA’s canyon-chic home is set back in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains. Her French bulldogs, Pepper and Piglet, padded around the place, and people cooed over a bestie’s infant son. On her mantel, thirsty houseplants fought candles and an MTV trophy for space. Multicolored blooms crowded her stone porch and tea tables. A hundred roses of identical height and shade of red wilted in a keg-size vase. Could be crushes — a cornrowed hip-hop heartthrob? A pouty N.B.A. power forward? A favorite producer? Could be that SZA recently turned 33.

It was the afternoon of Dec. 8, and at midnight SZA would send the world her “SOS,” the 23-song second album that was to become a pop cultural phenomenon. Okla Jones of Essence would note the album’s “uncanny songwriting and brilliant honesty.” Pitchfork’s Julianne Escobedo Shepherd would say that “SOS” is “an exact mélange of confidence and pettiness,” solidifying SZA’s position as a generational talent. In Vulture, Craig Jenkins would callthe album “a maelstrom tamed by its singer’s steadiness, a series of death-defying maneuvers only she would try.” As of this writing, “SOS” has been atop the Billboard 200 for seven consecutive weeks, making it the longest consecutive No. 1 released in 2022. It has also spent more total weeks at No. 1 than any album released by a female artist since Taylor Swift’s “folklore” (2020), and it is the first R.&B. album to sit its first seven weeks at No. 1 since Whitney Houston’s “Whitney” was released in 1987.

The Billboard 200, which takes into consideration audio and video streaming and sales figures, is not broken down by race or genre. An untold number of albums vie for the No. 1 spot. To stay there for a month and a half? It means, in an era of fractured and hyperproactive audiences, that the album is a maypole around which a broad swath of the country sings and emotes and dances and generates content. These days, the No. 1 designation is as close as recorded music gets to being embraced by the masses.

But SZA (“SIZZ-uh,” inspired by Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA) didn’t know any of this yet. She was in her kitchen, in big hair and a ball cap, in that harrowing hour between when the art is completed and when it is experienced. “I didn’t even know how to make” the album, she said, “ ’cause I didn’t have a purpose.” When she was creating “Ctrl,” she told me, a big part of her motivation was proving she could do it. “But now it’s like, I did everything I wanted to do.” The post-mortems she performs on her work tend toward ruthlessness. And she doesn’t always wait until the work has been released to dissect it.

In the week leading up to the release of “SOS,” SZA suffered the fits and starts many artists experience before their projects premiere, though those bursts were sieved through her specific anxieties. SZA told me about “weird, negative” remarks people made to her as she was prepping “SOS” for release. An unnamed person asked her if she was scared of the sophomore curse. “I never heard that before,” SZA said. “I was like, What?” SZA canceled some public appearances and considered reneging on press. She thought about pushing “SOS” back a month. When she speaks about album release dates, responses escalate quickly from ripple to tidal wave.

In an interview last February, SZA said that her next album would be ready in time for summer. In mid-July of 2022, when it hadn’t yet arrived, someone commented on her Instagram that she had “lied” about that time frame. SZA responded by blaming RCA Records and her manager, Terrence Henderson, who goes by Punch and is also a president of her primary record label, Top Dawg Entertainment. SZA and Punch traded surly tweets, and as it all went viral, a messy narrative was set: SZA and her label were at odds. Though SZA’s fans don’t have a collective name like Nicki Minaj’s Barbs, Taylor’s Swifties or Mariah’s Lambs, what a small, thundering percentage of them do have is a feeling that they are owed her finished work on a timetable they deem appropriate. It must also be flawless, incite joy and succeed as musical therapy.

SZA flouts reins — like schedules — on her creativity. While not as uncompromising as, say, the hall-of-fame singer/songwriter Sade about managing her appearances and keeping private her much-discussed love life, SZA is more inside than out. “I have to just keep showing people and teaching people who I am,” she said from a cleft in her couch. “People always want to keep me in a reductive space.”

It stresses her. So SZA made us tequila cocktails we barely drank, and she barely smoked her CBD. She was experiencing a flare-up of career dysmorphia — that thing when your glorious and hard-won professional accomplishments appear in your mind’s eye as tiny and valueless. That thing when someone does say, You are masterful, and a thought immediately intrudes that answers, I’m not. “I don’t expect anything,” SZA said. “I’m ready for the hate, or backlash, or disappointment. ... I’m not expecting people to be like, Oh, my God, this album is so good. I’m expecting people to be like, Y’all hyped this bitch up too much.”

At that moment her father, Abdul-Alim Mubarak-Rowe, walked through the door with a large delivery of African lilies from his daughter’s front porch and playfully compelled her to accept them. She gave him a placating look. “Something’s happening,” SZA said. She was in repose. Her smile was tentative. “I feel it. I cry a lot before big things, like releases. Or I’ll get angry, mean. And I realize, I’m being a bitch right now because I’m scared. A lot of that happened during this last section of putting this album together — lashing out, and freaking out. It’s like, Oh. I’m just terrified.”

The SZA I met is a close cousin of the self she imagines in her music. Her asymmetrical blues are steeped in yearning, anger, fleeting bravado, loneliness, excess, unease. She is a bard of unruly relationships. SZA didn’t grow up in a church choir, and she doesn’t belt to the rafters — instead she sings and rap-sings in a style that stretches and joins words so inventively that they become the music itself.

Last January, SZA tweeted, “I jus wanna know why lil Richard said ‘wapbabaloobop balapbam boom tootie fruity on rootie’ and nobody complained but I gotta ‘ANNUNCIATE’ 🙄.” She was saying that if Little Richard could, as he did with “Tutti Frutti” (1957), make immortal his idiosyncratic phraseologies, she, too, could devise her own sometimes yodeling, sometimes conversational, often inscrutable musical language. Easy listens, bright endings and other old love-song tropes belong in someone else’s catalog. “Everything I’m doing is contrary to the system,” SZA told me, “in terms of songs that don’t have the structure of a hit but end up being a hit.”

SZA’s music has been labeled many things — among them is chill wave, a laconic, psychedelic form of electropop. “That’s my older music,” she said. Her songs have also been classified as trillwave, a dreamy, lo-fi subgenre of Southern rap. “I’ll take that,” she said with a quick laugh. “My music is like what glitter trap was originally: ’hood, with feminine inflections.” And on the concept of rhythm and blues, the genre in which her work is most often included, SZA has thoughts. “People just sweep me into this conversation of R.&B., and like — whatever. It’s like, yeah, but I can do so much more,” she said without hesitation, “I can do anything.”

SZA is not minimizing or abandoning rhythm and blues; she is talking about artistic equality and freedom. While the sounds, vocals, moods and indelible history of R.&B. as an art form are fundamental to American music and culture, R.&B. as a media, advertising and touring category continues to contribute to artists’ unequal compensation and cultural credit — hence the ongoing and righteous shouts from the margins that Black artists created rock ’n’ roll. R.&B. is Black music historically confined to the Race Music category, going back to juke joints, jukeboxes and the chitlin’ circuit. There are also the propagandist critical stances that belittle the most successful Black recording artists, from Lionel Richie to Lizzo, as “crossover” acts, “sellouts” and “industry plants.” SZA looks askance at anything that limits Black artists. “That’s what makes a pop star,” SZA said. “When they can do multifaceted, and it all hits.”

In song after song on “SOS,” SZA, like her blues-women forebears, is unabashed. It’s difficult to publicly say, as SZA does on her hit single “Kill Bill,” “Rather be in hell than alone.” That line calls to mind “If you were mine/I wouldn’t want to go/to Heaven,” from Sade’s 1992 hit “Cherish the Day.” In Sade’s heyday, she was, as SZA is now, accused of creating “sad-girl music,” as if sadness isn’t deserving of inquiry, as if there isn’t renewal to be found in blues. “Sad-girl energy has always been my energy,” SZA said. “It’s never been, like, bitch-girl energy.”

This transparency — saying the quiet parts out loud — endears SZA to a listenership desperate for a hero who knows their messy, inglorious hearts. Previous generations of Black women had Susan Taylor of Essence or Oprah Winfrey off whom to bounce their worries and desires. For all the genre stratification and social-media agita, SZA is adored. She sings the inky secrets of women’s journals. Her music appeals to marginalized professional Black women gleefully centering themselves at boozy brunches, to white girls getting their credits up at diverse junior colleges, to women who took back the wrong dude after sending 89 profane and near-​pornographic texts, to the girls of all backgrounds secretly saving for quality B.B.L.s.

On this album, SZA’s voice gets at the way a lyric like “You remind me I’m imperfect” (“Love Language”) feels at first like a response to wisdom, and then like the negging it is. The devastation of “I gave all my special away to a loser” (“Special”) becomes the desperation of “Stick it in/’fore the memories get to kicking in” (“Nobody Gets Me”). And then the foggy dawn of “Squeezing too tight/Boy you’re losing me” (“Gone Girl”) lights a way toward the triumphant confidence of “I’m betting on me” (“Conceited”). When SZA gets to “I hate me enough for the two of us,” the singer harks to the sweet womb of desolation, a place to end or begin again.

In the summertimes, young Solána Imani Rowe jumped rope with phone cords in her ancestral ’hood of St. Louis. She would travel with her mother from Maplewood, N.J., her hometown, and spend muggy months there with her maternal grandmother. “Firecrackers in the street,” SZA recalled, “and walking to Dairy Queen.” According to her mother, Solána was a “highly energetic” girl. They watched films together, and SZA remembers her mom calling her Chickabee, because they loved “Nell,” the 1994 movie in which Jodie Foster portrays a “wild” child who speaks her own language.

“I’ve been writing a long time,” SZA told me in Malibu. “I was that kid that had super profound emotions that I couldn’t express. It was almost laughable that I had this many existential crises at 8.” She read a lot too. “The Quran and the Bible were probably my firsts.”

SZA’s mother is Christian, and her father is a Muslim who has completed the hajj. In their household in Maplewood, her parents’ interfaith relationship was normal; she attended Sunday school and Muslim school. “My mom would do her, my dad would do him,” SZA said. “They made space for each other. My dad will come to my mom’s church on big events. My mom will get dressed up for jum’ah” — Friday midday prayer — “and come with my dad to the mosque. My mom would put up a Christmas tree, and my dad would roll his eyes and pretend he didn’t see it.”

It was a conservative household. Her parents were older than many of her friends’ parents, and her half sister, Panya Rowe, is 11 years SZA’s senior. She spent a lot of time by herself. “ ‘The Simpsons,’” she said, “that was, like, edgy in my house, and ‘Star Trek.’” SZA’s father listened to jazz: Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, John Coltrane. Her sister loved Tupac, and her next-door neighbor would burn her CDs with the music of Ashanti, Aaliyah, Jay-Z, Cash Money Records’s Lil Wayne and Juvenile.

SZA’s parents have front-facing roles in their community. Abdul-Alim is a former editor and producer at CNN who currently serves on the advisory board of the New Jersey Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Audrey is a former AT&T executive who is now a program director for the South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race. In 2018, she told a local news site that the best way to describe her family is “involved, supportive, overbooked, outgoing, spiritually aware, talkers, loyal,” and those qualities were apparent when I saw SZA’s parents at the taping of her “Saturday Night Live” appearance in early December. As she performed “Shirt” and “Blind” to an elated crowd and announced her album’s release, Audrey and Abdul-Alim beamed. It’s possible that SZA’s relationship with her parents feels considered and warm because it is. “I miss my mama when the tide is low,” SZA sings on the yet to be formally released “Joni (Perfect Timing),” a song she says is written from the perspective of Joni Mitchell. A few years ago, a video of her father getting choked upwhile singing along to “Broken Clocks” went viral.

Both of her parents saw her talent. “She had a voice from very young years,” Audrey Rowe told me. She recalls her daughter’s signing up for a middle-school talent show, and then at the last minute having to talk her into hitting the stage — which Solána did. “The thing that shifted,” Rowe said, “was when she owned her own voice.”

Maplewood’s Columbia High, where Solána went to school, has the feel of a John Hughes film, if Hughes’s films were racially diverse. Columbia builds somebodies. It has produced actors (Roy Scheider, Zach Braff); writers (Paul Auster); legal minds (Amalya Lyle Kearce, the first Black woman to become a Federal Appellate Court judge); and, most important to SZA, the singer-songwriter-MC-producer Lauryn Hill. In addition to Hill’s early hits with the Fugees (“Ready or Not,” “Killing Me Softly”), it’s her five-time Grammy-winning solo debut, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” (1998), that dragged rap back to the land of the living after the twin drive-by murders of Tupac Shakur (1996) and Notorious B.I.G. (1997). In 2018, when SZA was inducted into Columbia High’s Hall of Fame, she gave a short talk at the ceremony. “I was so happy for her,” Rowe said. “She has wanted to be there with Hill. That was more important to her, quite honestly, than the Grammys.”

And Columbia is where Solána found her hard core. At a pep rally, a whole bunch of kids were crowded in the gym. “We never did gymnastics on our high school grounds,” SZA said. “We went to a separate gym. But everybody had to showcase their sport at pep rally.” SZA had been involved in gymnastics since she was a small girl. Rowe said Solána was usually the youngest or smallest in her extracurricular activities. The sport “gave her a competitive spirit. She always felt like she had something to prove.”

‘That’s what makes a pop star. When they can do multifaceted, and it all hits.’

For the gymnasts at Columbia’s pep rally, there was one long mat. SZA recalled that, for insurance reasons, her coach instructed her to do a simple back walkover — a move in which the gymnast falls into a backbend until the body is an upside-down U. Then she fluidly lifts one leg over the other. Midway, the athlete is in a handstand, with legs in full split. At landing, arms go up in champion pose.

“Everybody did their walkover, and the crowd’s clapping it up,” SZA said. “It was my turn. I did my cartwheel-back-walkover, and one side of the whole gym started booing.” Ah. The comments section when it was in-person. “Started with like, four girls, and it spread to the whole,” SZA said. “This group of girls didn’t like me. It wasn’t because I was meek, it was just because I was strange.” SZA explained that her references were different from most of her peers’. “Hella. My parents exposed me to a lot. Mythology, and quirky things.” She told me that she was always looking at the world through “an esoteric or eccentric lens.”

And by SZA’s own account, she was annoying: “I had a mouth on me,” she said. “I wanted to like, be friends and be liked, and I just wasn’t. I was awkward. I walked up to people like, ‘Can we be friends?’ Who says that? I would say it. ‘I would love to be friends with you. Like, can we hang out?’”

The pain of you-can’t-sit-with-us tattoos your soul. It can send you into a cave of depression. It can be the stupid thing that didn’t kill you but pushes you to emit protagonist energy worthy of adoration and hate. It can make you write and sing what you want when you want because — you know what? Eat dirt. Pay me. Love me. Know by heart my every lilting, diffused enunciation. Shudder beneath my raw blue soundclouds.

“I’d love to be friends. Can we hang out?” is not so far away from the vulnerable lyrics of “Open Arms” from “SOS”: “I hate myself to make you stay/Push me away, I’ll be right here.” On more than one level, that pep rally got Solána ready to be SZA. “This is what ruined me,” she said in Malibu. “It wasn’t the boo.” She paused. “It was the fact that I decided at that moment I was going to do a double back handspring into a layout, for the first time.”

Decided to do it, or did do it.


A double back handspring is on a whole other level. Done right, it can look like a back walkover, in the air, twice. And the layout is flipping one’s completely straight body through air. Done wrong, a double back handspring into a layout results in shame at the least, injury at the worst. This is power tumbling. This is writing the songs and singing the songs in a world not much different from a musty gym full of haters.

I landed,” she said, “and the crowd went crazy. It went from booing to ... like, I can’t believe that bitch just did that.” That’s when she realized: “Oh, babe, I can transform haters. That ruined me.”

Why ruined, and not built?

“Because it was like, you don’t have to like me, but you’re going to respect me. ’Cause I’m going to be better than you, I’m going to execute this better than you, and I’m not going to fail. That’s where this” — she made a small gesture toward herself — “really came from.” How can a formative triumph be a source of ruin? If you consider her musical tradition, the logic becomes clear. It’s Black and blue. It’s Bessie and Billie. Nancy Wilson and Natalie Cole. It’s the cold belly of even the joyous vocals of Gladys and Dionne. It’s Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” It’s Badu. It’s Jazmine Sullivan and Jhené Aiko. It’s nearly every song Sade’s ever made. Be it getting booed or being ghosted, the ruination will be utilized.

Music wasn’t yet teenage Solána’s dream, but she did start living the life that would saturate her songs. The plan was to major in marine biology at Delaware State University — it just wasn’t Solána’s plan. “I drank Malibu,” she said of her short time there, “and smoked weed every day. And slept.” Soon she was fibbing about her age, and her ability to make cocktails, so she could serve dragonberry rum at tristate-area strip clubs. “I was easily working 14 hours,” she said, “like, just counting money.” She bartended and danced briefly at Sin City Gentlemen’s Cabaret in the Bronx, Knockouts in Newark, Nardone’s in Elizabeth, N.J. Solána wanted to dance at the clubs because there was more money in it, but club managers weren’t interested in what she called her “Flashdance” moves. “I learned that a lot is expendable.” Dudes “can’t wait to just move on to whoever’s next and new,” she said. “Nothing is like the new girl in the club.”

Then her family found out. “My sister got my ass,” SZA said. At the strip club, “there was a banner of me with like, a bottle of Hennessy, next to a pole. It was bad.” Panya told their mother about it, and Audrey promptly drove by the club. She couldn’t find the banner. But still, SZA said with a giggle about her sibling, “My sis is a cretin.”

“When I wouldn’t do the college thing they wanted,” SZA said in Malibu, “my mom kind of insinuated that I had to, like, get out.” She laughed. “I started staying on people’s couches, and vibing aimlessly. That sent me into a crazy depression but also lit a fire under my ass.”

Things were tense. “She named her album ‘Ctrl’ for a reason,” Audrey Rowe told me. “I had this willingness to go with her interests, but I also had an end result I thought would be appropriate.” Rowe said that getting a college education was drilled into Solána’s head by both her and her husband. “So, clearly, the arts would not have been my choice,” Rowe said. But Solána loved music. A close friend, Daniel Pierre, asked her to sing on one of his songs, and she told Complex in 2013, “That was the beginning of hearing my voice and being like, I can do something.”

After her brief tenure at Delaware State, Solána attended the Fashion Institute of Technology — for a summer. “I wish I knew then what I know now,” Rowe said, “about listening to what your child has a passion for, and supporting that, whatever it is.” At F.I.T., Rowe said, “she did take some classes that we paid for, and her skills just soared.” Rowe said people often walked up to her daughter in public and asked where they could purchase the handcrafted items Solána was wearing. To her mother’s dismay, Solána would frequently remove articles of clothing and give them to the admirer — a precursor to SZA’s sharing stitched intimacies in free mixtapes. “It’s so hard to follow your own dreams,” Rowe said. “So many of us abandon it very young, especially if the people that we respect and love and trust think we could or should be doing something different. I’m so glad that she didn’t listen to me.”

Solána’s leap from barkeep to the cutthroat cool-kid universe of 2010s New York came after that summer at F.I.T., when she interned at Billionaire Boys Club, the fashion label founded by Pharrell Williams and Nigo, the music-and-clothing impresario. She also worked for Scott Sasso’s 10.Deep — a now all-but-defunct streetwear brand popping enough back then to be shouted out on early A$AP Rocky songs.

The year 2011 was a sumptuous one for Black music. Kelly Rowland’s eerie “Motivation” owned the after-hours, while Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” ruled radio. Beyoncé announced her first pregnancy with a tummy rub while performing “Love on Top” at the MTV Video Music Awards. And “We Found Love,” by Rihanna and Calvin Harris, was at the top of the pops. The song and its mesmeric video presented Rihanna as spiraling Black-girl royalty. Tyler, the Creator’s Odd Future crew, especially Frank Ocean, Syd and Domo Genesis, were the new confessional kids, fluid and gawky as hell, wilding onstage like punks crossed with posse rappers. Back then, illegal mixtapes, not unlike the pirate radio of previous generations, were the apotheosis of musical creativity — artists rhyming over other artists’ beats without copyright permissions or payment — and SZA was singing her own songs over internet instrumentals plucked from producers including Brandun DeShay, a former member of Odd Future.

It was into this charged air that SZA found herself delivering 10.Deep gear to the Top Dawg Entertainment team in New York. Founded in 2004 by Anthony Tiffith, who goes by Top Dawg, Top Dawg Entertainment is an indie label out of Carson, Calif., near Watts’s Nickerson Gardens public housing projects, where Tiffith and Punch Henderson grew up. T.D.E. seemed to rise from the ashes of Death Row Records. In the early 2010s, the label was ascendant. A Los Angeles mixtape kid, bloggers’ hero and T.D.E. signee named Kendrick Lamar was headlining a showcase at the Gramercy Theater. His debut album, “Section.80,” was ruling the rap underground and establishing him as the label’s main focus.

10.Deep sponsored the event, so SZA and a friend brought some clothes to Tiffith and Henderson. Her friend just so happened to be playing one of SZA’s musical experiments. Henderson heard the song leaking from her friend’s earphones and was floored by SZA’s singing voice.

“Once I got past that, I started listening to her words, what she was actually saying,” Henderson told me in January. He thought, “My God, this is crazy.” He says that he’s 90 percent sure the song was “Country,” one of those early unauthorized tracks that ended up on SZA’s first mixtape, “See.SZA.Run” (2012). The song’s low-key repetitions are Sade-esque. SZA didn’t sign to T.D.E. right away. “It was two years after that,” Henderson told me. “But during that time frame, we kept in contact, and she would always send me songs.”

There’s a lot of ways SZA could have gone. “Quiet as it’s kept,” she said, “I wanted to be with like, Odd Future.” She added, “I felt more like a Clancy girl.” Christian Clancy and his wife, Kelly Clancy, are the founders of 4 Strikes Management. They work with the aforementioned Tyler, the Creator. 4 Strikes managed Frank Ocean through 2014 and Mac Miller from 2013 until his death in 2018. When SZA first moved to Los Angeles, she said, she would hang out with her T.D.E. associates and pop over to Miller’s house. Los Angeles was, to quote Kid Cudi, on that new new, and SZA was fresh on the scene. “Punch believed in me,” SZA said. And so she signed with Top Dawg in 2013.

SZA’s T.D.E. integration was far from smooth. The label’s nucleus was a quintet of rap stars — Kendrick, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and Isaiah Rashad — who took a while to call her by her name. “They’d be like, Suzanne? Is it Suzanne?” Corrosive big-bro clown antics with a top note of hazing. “Their jokes,” SZA told me, “I’d be like, This is too much. I’d ... walk out crying.” Of course they knew she was special, though. SZA is featured on three T.D.E. albums released in 2014. About those early years, Henderson said that Kendrick “was obviously the more key artist for us, but I’ve seen what SZA could transition into, whether he was here or not.”

No shots, no shade — no disrespect — but there’s something so satisfying about the way SZA has emerged from the T.D.E. boys’ club as its new flagship. It’s like how Lil’ Kim became the best-selling rapper to come out of the Notorious B.I.G.’s Junior M.A.F.I.A. crew, when the conventional money was on Lil’ Cease to succeed Biggie. Or like in the early 1980s when Howard Hewitt was chosen by management as the breakout solo star of the R.&B. trio Shalamar, but Jody Watley surfaced as the one holding up a Best New Artist Grammy. Lauryn Hill — over Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel of the Fugees — will go down in history as one of the best to ever sing or rap a song. The woman artist, so often brought in as much as trinket as talent, has been right there, a diamond in the sexist musical rough all along.

SZA’s pre-album period was visionary. After the “See.SZA.Run” mixtape, there were the extended-plays “S” (2013) and “Z” (2014). All three were applauded as everything from dreamy to warped to captivating. “I was super unpolished,” SZA said. “Rough around the edges ... chip on my shoulder. I couldn’t get writers to help me. No one wanted to write with me.” Yet by 2014, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj and the superproducer Hit-Boy did. SZA has co-writing credit on Nicki Minaj’s 2014 hit “Feeling Myself.” Her lyrics were (and still are) free-form, but also disciplined and ruthless. “It was a void between the underground and mainstream,” Henderson said. “Beyoncé had been doing it since ’99, or ’98.” He added: “And Rihanna, who is younger, she still had been doing it for a long time. There was nobody filling this gap.” There were definitely people trying, he said. But “nobody had a grip on it yet. That’s the lane that SZA came in and filled.”

During the production of “Ctrl,” SZA met with Rick Rubin in Malibu. A founder of Def Jam, Rubin has long been a part of Malibu’s frayed-flip-flops musical mystique. SZA told me that Rubin explained, “The more you remove from a project, the more everything else can shine.” “I was like, Oh. I couldn’t just hide behind metaphors and hollow backgrounds, and harmonies. I’m wordy by nature, so ... I started adding less words. That’s like, my hardest feat, still.” When I met her in Malibu, the woman with 15 Grammy nominations and an acclaimed debut LP remained uncertain. “I don’t know if they’re sticky,” she said of her songs. “Only time will tell.”

In early December, we were in Downtown Los Angeles at a soiree for “SOS” — SZA’s distress signal. If the run-up to a record’s premiere is a stress carnival, the album release party is usually a not-so-funhouse with spinning corridors, trick mirrors and shifting floors. The artist is celebrating a thing she made with folks who won tickets and who want to hug her and see what she’s wearing down to the lashes and the lip gloss. The crowd, clearly managed with Covid in mind, was composed of mostly women. The lines were long to enter the cavernous space, but once guests were inside, there was no formal V.I.P. section, so the night felt egalitarian and free. Suddenly there was a teeming mound of people reaching desperately forward. You saw the hair first — SZA had arrived.

Up close, she was overwhelmed but alert. My guess is that she was awkward about accepting congratulations in advance — her album had not been in the world for a full day. But Punch Henderson looked relaxed, and Mark Pitts, president of RCA Records, T.D.E.’s parent label (and the manager, to his death, of Notorious B.I.G.), had the kind of smile I hadn’t seen on him since hip-hop’s early-’90s wonder years. The throng pelted SZA with words of uplift. She smiled and grasped people’s hands with gratitude. Her eyes were wet, though. She was looking through us, for her art — her truest self — to see if it was OK. She stayed maybe 30 minutes.

On the “SOS” album cover, SZA is in loose shorts, Timberland boots and a St. Louis Blues hockey jersey. She’s sitting at the edge of a diving board in the manner of Diana, Princess of Wales, a homage to the devastating Portofino shot taken a week before she was killed. SZA has said that she relates to the isolation of Lady Di in that shot. But stare at the image long enough, and the desolation fades. SZA is on the edge, where she is fortified.

I thought of a moment when I visited SZA on the New York City set of the video for “Nobody Gets Me,” a standout track from “SOS.” We were on the rooftop of a 102-year-old building — 20 floors up, across from the Fashion Institute of Technology, SZA’s old stomping grounds. A guy on the video crew’s whole job was apparently to periodically and robotically shout stuff like: “Death is below. Do not ever step backward.” It was 37 degrees. The winds whipped, the sun was setting and there were no safety rails. As SZA mouthed the lines, “If I’m real, I deserve less/If I was you, I wouldn’t take me back,” she stood approximately four inches from an edge.

Cameras rolled. The tension blistered. In my 50s, I still have in me a bit of the girl on the back of some boy’s Ninja bike, going 80 miles an hour in shorts and sandals. It feels like freedom when falling would not be the worst outcome. And no one can touch you, because they’re too scared to even come close.

Between takes, the Willona Woods in me couldn’t resist saying to SZA, “Careful though?” And in a tone that another might answer with, OK, for sure, and a retreat, SZA said, “Yeah, I like it.”

The edge can feel safe when in the roiling mainstream, a movie like “Glass Onion” comes out and tech bros can’t quite believe that the master detective Benoit Blanc would care so much about a Black female character’s pain. When the columnist Jeremy Clarkson wishes in writing that people would throw excrement on Meghan Markle. When the social media that SZA speaks so natively, that lifts her songs to vaunted viral status, is also the apparatus that rises so virulently to shame and attack her that her mother addresses it daily. “I get up, immediately go to my knees on the side of the bed, say my prayers,” Audrey Rowe told me. “Then go on social media to see what Solána’s feeling and saying, to see what other people are feeling and saying. Her candor is a big part of her charm, but it also makes her very vulnerable, because there are things that people know about her that could be used to her detriment. I often will think, Oh, God, why did she say that? I’ve gotten used to the fact that she’s going to say what she feels.” SZA says what she feels in a world where the Grammy-winning Megan Thee Stallion’s ex-friend yelled, “Dance, bitch,” Megan testified, before he shot her — a dancer — in her feet. This is not offhanded. This is a message of resentment, in skywriting, for SZA and women like her to back-flip forever, trying to prove their humanity to those who keep them too weary to dream, too exhausted to plan, too scared to tell their own stories and too unsure of their own worthiness to truly live.

SZA told me later that she did have a quiet freak-out on the roof that day. “Part of me feels like, Wait, this album is really good, and I can’t imagine being any more famous, or any more successful. I’m like, Am I about to die? Fall over the edge? It’s like, my album has to tank, because if it’s any better, if it goes so well, I have to die after that. Because no one gets that.” It can seem too lucky to receive the goodness for which you worked so hard. From afar it can seem as if we’re dancing, but more likely it’s a shuddering, in the shade of that falling other shoe.

But in SZA’s safe place, her long-dreamed-about Malibu, she can stand at the edge of the water, where gray whales elegantly breach, just to remind the world who they are. “My purpose is, Who do I want to be? Like, who are you? Not ... trying to be this or trying to be that. But like, no — really show.” The ocean that comforts her is near, and it soothes her not just because it’s there but because she wanted to be near it, and she made it so. She has stuck the landing. That’s the lick-back. “Make it big, make it known,” she says. “Don’t ... be like, Quiet as it’s kept, I’m kind of eclectic. You don’t have to be quiet-as-it’s-kept. You could just be.”

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