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Kendrick Lamar selects SZA

"The substance to make a lifetime connection" – we meet the uncompromising R&B singer in New Jersey

Taken from the October issue of Dazed & Confused

Top Dawg Kendrick Lamar: “SZA’s got the skill, confidence, hunger and courage to revive a sound that’s been lost. Her substance and abstract concepts have the ability to make a lifetime connection that hasn’t been around since Erykah Badu’s Baduizm or Jay Z’s In My Lifetime. A true artist at heart, one hunnit.”

Mining the dark side of R&B with uncompromising intensity, SZA is the latest recruit for Kendrick Lamar’s Top Dawg Entertainment and by far its most diverse affiliate. The 23-year-old wild-haired wunderkind first wowed the masses last year when her street EP See.SZA.Run hit the ground running in a completely new direction for electro-soul. Two subsequent EPs, S and the forthcoming Z, are seeing her fanbase grow exponentially thanks to melancholic torch songs “Julia” and “Teen Spirit”, the latter of which moved her mom to tears. “I have no idea what I’m doing or what I sound like to other people,” she says. “I just do what feels good to me.” 

Born Solana Rowe, she grew up and still lives in Maplewood, New Jersey, just a town away from Lauryn Hill’s birthplace (she even attended the former school of the Fugees figurehead). SZA was raised an Orthodox muslim, and for half her life her hair was covered by a hijab in public. She rarely watched TV or listened to the radio, missing out on the musical changes of the early 2000s because her father (a journalist and devout Muslim) offered only two listening options at home: John Coltrane or Ella Fitzgerald. “My parents built an entire new world for me on their own,” she explains. After finding an old iPod at school crammed with Björk songs, music became her escape at a time when she was being bullied for being different. She didn’t even celebrate Halloween until she was away at college, where she majored in marine biology. 

In the recording booth she finally found an outlet for her angst, improvising all her lyrics on the spot. “Looking back at my own shit, I’m like, ‘Fuck, I seem so morbid’,” she admits. “I spend so much time pretending to be happy that I don’t realise how unhappy I am until it comes out in my music. I can’t get a grip on this whole happy thing. With music, I just say what’s on my mind. It’s like there’s a leprechaun in my brain.” 

Her trepidations continue to haunt her as she lets her freak flag fly into the next phase of her career: “I’m really pessimistic because you never know what’s going to happen,” she says, before taking off on her beloved red bicycle. “I’ll probably be holding my breath until I win a Grammy.”