As the first woman to sign with Top Dawg Entertainment, SZA, aka New Jersey singer-songwriter Solana Rowe, would better fit into the label as a non-rapper if she had the average rapper’s panache. Instead, she comes across as the last person who would ever have delusions of grandeur. She knows she potentially has the reach of Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock, not to mention Isaiah Rashad, her fellow 2013 TDE signing. From her hockey jerseys to her bedhead, though, it’s like Rowe is too mellow to care or even think about fame. Accordingly, Z, her debut album following 2012’s See.SZA.Run and 2013’s S EPs, sounds entirely organic and self-sufficient. The tricky part is getting to that point. Versatile vocalist that Rowe is, the album isn’t just R&B, pop, soul, or one thing at all. In turn, its genre agnosticism corresponds to the self-questioning that makes SZA a reliable narrator.
Whether it’s a purposefully general lyric (“Shaped like a figure eight, who trusts pretty girls anyway?”) or an ambitious but quick reference (as when the Shakespeare tragedy Othello is mentioned on “Childs Play”), Rowe skirts the specificity of something like Angel Haze’s Dirty Gold. Instead, she projects effectively but sometimes shyly across the canvas provided by producers like Larry Fisherman (better known as Mac Miller), Toro Y Moi, and “Marvin Gaye” on the Billie Holiday pastiche “Sweet November”.
With the production as a sturdy foundation, Rowe is all the more comfortable opening up on Z. The slow-riding, narcotized “Childs Play” features sharp imagery of decapitated Barbie dolls before Chance the Rapper steps in with his unmistakable clowning; however, it skews melancholy when they duet as the song closes. The six-minute “Warm Winds”, with Isaiah Rashad, is the album’s longest song and its strongest collaboration, even if the partnership leaves stones unturned (“Show me a better way/ I wish you could”). Next, “HiiiJack” is the album’s comfiest R&B love song, but even that one is far from self-assured.
Still, it’s hard to overlook that Z, for all its emotional valleys, is also defined by moments of earned strength. Rowe’s voice is confident throughout — it’s her biggest asset — but the back half of the album has to redeem the self-consciousness of the first. “Green Mile” boasts the sweep of a Jessie Ware single, the drums at its already huge chorus gloriously crashing like a detonated stadium. “Babylon”, assisted by Kendrick Lamar, starts with and returns to one telling phrase (“Crucify me”) and is the album’s most structurally adventurous track. Finally, the haunted album closer, “Omega”, stakes out familiar musical territory and reaches an important decision: “You don’t know yourself if it hurts you to explain.”
None of that’s to say this album is as bold as we’ve come to expect from TDE, an entity that, from good kid, m.A.A.d City to Oxymoron, has come to shape rap’s present scope and the way popular music is dreamt up. Z doesn’t see all that for itself. At just over 40 minutes, enough of it connects immediately so that, in theory, 15 more minutes of so-so material wouldn’t have held it down much. Rowe’s natural acumen and the selectiveness of her compositions make Z a credible first listen. What ultimately makes it stick, from the beaming hooks to the gossamer production, is the execution, how all the scattered pieces eventually jell until the puzzle is complete.
Essential Tracks: “Childs Play”, “Babylon”