SZA: The First Lady of T.D.E.
It’s an unusually breezy fall evening in Las Vegas at the Boulevard Pool – which doubles as a concert venue – on the roof of the Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino and there’s an extraordinarily rare sighting. Sprinkled amongst a sea of fans waiting to see the French alt-rock outfit Phoenix are a few gentlemen in red hoodies with the “TDE” logo sprawled in gold across their chest. They aren’t fans of Top Dawg Entertainment’s Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolBoy Q, Ab Soul and Jay Rock. Rather, they are the men behind the label that has helped deliver those talented artists that fill up our iPods with their music.
Top Dawg, Ret One, and Punch are milling about without the accompaniment of their all-star emcees. Instead, they are here to watch their latest signee, female singer SZA, open up for Phoenix. Witnessing these three in the same area at once is a sight that you will rarely see given the nearly schizophrenic scheduling of TDE artists. And what makes the occasion even more of a rarity is that not a single soul in this massive crowd has batted a lash. An all-hands-on-deck moment like this is usually reserved for a major award show, not for one of their artists opening up for a rock band.
But that’s just how important SZA, born Solana Rowe, is to the future of Top Dawg Entertainment. It’s not as if the St. Louis-born, New Jersey-raised singer has been on everyone’s radar for the past few years and TDE signed her off the strength of her buzz. It’s a far different tale. The singer hasn’t been on the scene that long and released her first two free EPs last year, See. SZA.Run and S.
But now here she is, opening for Phoenix in Las Vegas. Draped in a white, loose-fitting top with her curly hair bobbing as she coos through the trippy production, SZA has this crowd in a trance. They are still trying to figure out who she is but seem mesmerized when “Teen Spirit” pumps from the speakers. Only a few get a clue of her affiliation when the signature phrase “Top Dawg Entertainment” blurts out between songs. One guy yells at the top of his lungs “Kendrick Lamar!” and SZA acknowledges him, “Yeah, he’s great, isn’t he?” A few light bulbs appear over the crowd but many are still using her soothing music to pass time until Phoenix hits the stage and rocks out. Nevertheless, SZA has introduced a new crowd to her music and exits to applause.
She retreats to a corner of the makeshift dressing room while the rest of the TDE crew yuk it up and scour their cell phones to see just how many thousand emails and text messages they missed during the set. But SZA is isolated in this room of 15 people. Only Ret One engages in a brief conversation with her before making the introduction. But this isolation is normal for her and is a major component for the music she makes. She lays her head across the bar area, beauty marks pepper her brown skin like they were artfully placed, and just smiles. “I find comfort in being alone,” the product of New Jersey explains as she lays her head on the marble countertop. “The first thing I did when I walked in here was disappear into this corner. I’m not the type of person that wants to go out and party. I’d rather go to my room and watch movies and crack the minibar.”
It is isolation that makes SZA who she is. It shapes her music and her mentality towards what goes into her craft. The orthodox Muslim child of a former executive producer at CNN and a global executive at AT&T doesn’t have the backstory of a troubled child who used music as a ladder to climb her way out of the slums. Rather, she grew up protected from outside influences and admittedly spent a great deal of time by herself. “When I wanted to go by someone’s house, my mom had to talk to their parents before I went over there to meet them in person. If, and only if that panned out I could be gone for an hour,” SZA reflects on how protective her parents were. “It wasn’t worth it, so I spent my time doing random arts and crafts shit. I spent a lot of time by myself. My parents didn’t ask questions when I was by myself. If I was involving someone else, then the questions came. They built me into being a loner.”
In some strange way, that loner mentality slowly molded her as an artist. Her sheltered life not only kept her away from a number of outside influences, it also kept her relatively oblivious from what was going in in popular culture and, in turn, helped her craft a sound that was totally hers. “The ratio of contemporary music to older was uneven in my house,” SZA says. Citing everyone from Fela Kuti and Bjork (courtesy of her time as a dancer at Alvin Ailey Dance Theater), Wu-Tang and Cash Money (thanks to her half-sister) and her father’s musical rotation of Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong, SZA set out to make music that sounded beautiful in her own mind. “All of those things together shaped the way I sang and pronounced my words, while the way my parents raised me shaped my thoughts. So everything came together to sound like this, whatever it is.”
Meanwhile, for an admittedly “smart girl, nerd type,” SZA never was fully invested in school. Instead, she bounced from odd job to odd job until music became her main focus in 2012. It was the outlet that she needed to get her thoughts out of her head. It was an ability she hid from everyone until she slowly let the world in on her talent. When asked what who she thinks her sound is comparative to, SZA sits up and scrunches her face. “In my head I sound like Mumford and Sons, but in real life I don’t,” she says with a laugh while thumbing through her Instagram as if it has the answer to the question. “It’s weird. The music I adore is Mumford and Sons. I don’t sound like that at all but that’s the music I would prefer to jam to all day.”
SZA calls her artistry “glitter trap” and, while it sounds oxymoronic, the phrase perfectly explains her deep trap overtones fused with gentle pop vibes. If it sounds nothing like anything you’ve ever heard, it’s not totally on purpose. It just happened to come out that way. “I don’t listen to the radio and don’t keep up with what’s current,” she says. “It keeps it honest. I have to stay that way. If I open myself up to too many influences then I don’t think I’ll be me anymore. I’m really impressionable.”
With her music floating around the Internet with little fanfare, SZA kept busy with a side hustle working with clothing company 10Deep. The company just so happened to be sponsoring a Kendrick Lamar show at CMJ and she just so happened to be tasked with bringing clothes to Kendrick and the rest of TDE. Meanwhile, her friend that she brought along happened to be listening to some of her music on her headphones and Punch caught wind of it and immediately feigned interest in SZA. Although nothing happened overnight, the two remained in contact and eventually she was brought into the mix.
Now that she’s officially the first lady of Top Dawg Entertainment, it is only right that the entire crew keep their eye on her. Which is why it is all hands on deck at this Las Vegas show. They are monitoring her live performance prowess closely on this night and, although he hasn’t said much to her, Top Dawg approves of her set. “Isn’t he scary? He’s so fucking scary. I spend 90% of my time trying to read him,” SZA jokes. “I’m always digging through Top Dawg trying to figure out what he means. I don’t like yes men. It makes you want to be better. He shows you through his actions that he thinks that you are dope.”
She waves off any notion that Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith is some kind of callous individual and says that he’s more of a looming presence that keeps everyone on point by saying very little. “He’s like Charlie from Charlie’s Angels,” she says while Top Dawg is in the middle of munching on a pizza and discussing boxing with a select few in the room. “You never see him but you definitely hear him and feel him. You know he’s around. But, for some reason, I like that. He reminds me of my father so much in his ways.”
To be part of a label that made their presence felt on their own terms is important to SZA. For her, a major label was never an option because, frankly, she doesn’t think they would have a damn clue what to do with her. “I think the labels would only understand me after I tour with Little Dragon or having my music place on HBO’s Girls or something like that,” she says in reference to the majors. “It would teach them about me. I don’t have time to wait for niggas to figure out what to do with me. I’d just rather let me do what I do and have them support me. “
With a full-length project on the way, SZA says that the staff at Top Dawg have taught her how to take her time making music and ensuring that the world hears the best that she has to offer. With so much excellence already exuding from the label, you would think that she has the weight of the world on her shoulders as the first lady of TDE. “There’s no pressure because I’m a girl but pressure because I’m part of a collective who has the caliber of music that can fuck all it up,” she says just loud enough for Punch to nod in agreement. “You can’t pussyfoot around this kind of thing. You have to be great and mean it. You have to make music with purpose and I think that’s the pressure.”
She begins walking from behind the bar to mix in with the crowd as Phoenix takes to the stage. But before she exits the room, she turns around with one last thing on her mind. “Nobody here cares that I’m a woman. They talk to me crazy like one of the guys. They don’t even notice that I have boobs, so everything is fine.“