SZA – Z – The STiXXclusive Review

2014 is the year of TDE, as was declared by Top Dawg himself, as the label is scheduled to release 6 albums from all of their artists on the roster. Isaiah Rashad started it off with Cilvia Demo, and then ScHoolboy Q came out with Oxymoron, which was highly anticipated on its own, dating back to 2013. Both of those albums received great praise all around, but next up was a change of pace and something really new for a lot of people to hear and have to test out, since all they’ve heard of SZA were a few records and some features on both Isaiah & ScHoolboy’s albums. For those who had no earlier listens of SZA, what she brings to the table is a different vibe that R&B hasn’t quite heard a lot of in terms of how her production and lyricism comes together, while accompanying a soothing voice that seems to fit different styles of song-writing. As I first indicated on my ‘On The Lookout’ piece on her, she definitely holds more value than others in terms of her eclectic approach to music that takes the likes of 80s pop, some 90s R&B, and throw in 808s and Hi Hats to create a Hip Hop inspired beat with glittery effects surrounding the atmosphere she creates (hence the self-proclaimed genre, Glitter-Trap). None of her EPs (albeit, there’s only two) sound the same, and she was adamant that Z would follow that trend of standing alone in its message and ultimately, its sound. Coming from a strict Muslim household which deems to be very conservative, her music is completely the opposite of that, but she still holds the morals she grew up with and applies them as teaching tools to serve her general audience. It’s one of the characteristics of TDE artists that have made them unique in their own way, and why people have gravitated towards them vividly – because of their ability to relate to the everyday person from all types of different perspectives. And lastly, their sound is their sound; not trying to fit in with the rest, but rather stand out. And being the only woman signed to TDE, standing out isn’t difficult for SZA to do.

SZA-Z-Cover

The beginning of Ur was heard at the beginning of the Babylon video, and it was revealed that Mac Miller produced it (he’s better as a producer than a rapper; to me at least). Having heard the version in full, the flurry of messages and soulful relief would ensue.

 

“Clarity is a state of mind
Freedom ain’t real, who’s sold you that lie?
I ain’t buying it
No matter what the price            “

 

Already off the top of the first lines, SZA draws intrigue with her lyrics as she poses questions for both a man and woman, telling them to go with their instincts and live their lives as though Freedom isn’t real and that Clarity is in your head. People have different beliefs, but at the same time we’re all still ignorant to different ideals where we don’t have a lot of knowledge within our cultures and ideals, but what SZA seems to emphasize is that we’re human beings meant to not be sheltered in a metaphorical box, but rather be ourselves, and that’s not something that’s often encouraged, because people feel the need to try and be something that they’re not. The next line to make sense of my point is a cool double entendre that sees what appears to be a headstrong and forward woman, but at the same time she’s condemn to the materialistic wants that have been portrayed by just about any form of medium about how a woman should look or act.

 

“Superficial Superwoman
Ain’t you tired of that wind in your face?”

 

Overall, it’s a great opening song to set the tone of just what to expect throughout, because the theme deals with SZA questioning femininity, as well as her personal reflections. It’s a bit of an extension from her S EP in terms of subject, but there’s definitely more to grasp as a whole.

 

It’s ironic that Chance the Rapper showed up on the album for Child’s Play, because it was speculated widely that he was supposed to be the artist that had been signed with TDE over Isaiah Rashad, but it worked out because he’s already worked with Ab-Soul, so it’s not like he’ll never not work with TDE. About You is a great song that I came to hear in 2013, made by XXYYXX, and that song was the sample that created the chemistry between SZA & Chance. There were a lot of childhood references like Barbie, Super Nintendo, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and with all of that, there’s a love interest intact that pits the two in a pot of reflection on how things used to be. It’s like how you meet up with old friends and talk for hours on end about how great things used to be and what happened to those times. I’m still in wonder. The chemistry between Chance & SZA was great because as weird and unorthodox that Chance is, they complimented each other well to create a cool vibe between them. The joys of childhood and the toys that came with them, were that you were able to engulf yourself in a fantasy world where nothing had to entirely make sense, but it was entertaining and it’s what made you happy. Unfortunately as time goes, we grow, and you’ve got to let go.

 

“Memories keep playing back, all nights we used to love
Just wondering how we used to was, how we used to was”

 

The first time I listened to Julia, and pretty much every time I hear it, I can’t help but think that it’s a song that was essentially lifted out of Solange’s True EP, and something that you’d most likely hear in a movie that came out in 1985. That was the immediate impression I got the first time, and it hasn’t stopped since. The song is named after Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman is one of her favourite movies – so there’s that connection), and it’s about a woman who’s clearly waiting for someone to return to them (a boyfriend; a loved one) because things turned rough, and throughout the adversity, she still stuck around and was hoping to expect the same treatment her way. Also, there are tie-ins with the relationship of her father, which wasn’t exactly the best.

 

“I’m the one who
Forgot all your mistakes
And dirty drawers
You know I care for you
When hell over earth came
I stood for you
Will you stand for me?”

 

I have to admit, that this was one particular song that had to grow on me more than the others just because of that Pop vibe that it gives. I’m not a particular fan of the song overall, but it does provide a funky vibe with a telling tale that I can certainly appreciate.

 

I like how Isaiah Rashad & SZA collaborate together, because they feed off each other’s strengths and really make good music as a collective. That’s evident on tracks like Ronnie Drake and West Savannah. This time it was Isaiah’s turn to make an appearance on one of SZA’s songs, and the second half of Warm Winds is where that happens. The first half is pretty dope on its own, as it’s also produced by Mac Miller. The advice she gives to the listener, as she puts herself in a position of a higher power (you see what I did) to let them know that you’re never alone and that if you have belief, there’s always someone or something looking out for you, no matter what your success or failures have done to shape you into the person you are. I liked the message behind it; it’s motivating and encouraging to those who don’t always have particular faith in their own abilities to be themselves where society’s telling you to be like everyone else.

 

The second half of the song is what I liked the most, and it’s also one of my favourites on the album itself (you could argue that both parts could have been separate songs). So, if in the first part she pitted herself as the higher power, then has she become the “Glory Child” she was referencing to in the first part? It makes you think.

 

“The clouds below your feet
Quit clipping on your wings
Sometimes we hate to leave somebody
What’s happening to we?”

 

I love the bars here, because it’s essentially relevant to everyone’s life to the point where we can all understand what’s being said here. When you want to be free of someone or something, but you’re afraid to leave (or in this case, fly away), it’s the same thing as clipping your own wings so that you disconnect the ability to move on from something that’s holding you back from self growth. It’s crazy that I had a conversation with a friend the other day about this very thing, so depending on where you are in your life, the hook plays well in a lot of situations. On each of the verses, SZA puts out her vulnerable and fragile state, as she’s alone and in need of wanting a particular someone to be by their side, but they’re so distant that she’s not herself. She has to imagine their presence in her mind in order to reaffirm the feeling. The calming vibe that Isaiah & SZA bring is just another day in the office for them; another gem from the two, and certainly not the last. And shout out to Pepper-Ann, that show was my shit. These kids don’t know about quality shows anymore – sad thing.

 

HiiiJack summoned the wizardry of Toro Y Moi, who gave her a wicked beat that you could immediately tell was his. In terms of hijacking (nice use of the ‘Hiii’ there), she’s hijacking love. Sounds crazy, but in a romantic kind of way; there’s aggressive nature at play and literally through hell, high water and gun fire, her hostage is going to have to stick around for the long run. Now, it could also be her hijacking the R&B game, or music in general, and that we’re stuck with her music, and you can go tell everybody that she means business.

 

“Sometimes I keep you in my mind
Sometimes I let you go up high
I’m using everything I find
Do anything to keep you tied up”

 

I like that she came together with Toro Y Moi, because I know he’s an artist that’s still coming to be appreciated (Anything In Return is one of the best albums in 2013 that you probably never heard of. Investigate that). Also, it adds that SZA takes any type of sound and applies it to her music, and that unique ability really stands out. There’s no one or two repetitive styles that are approached, and that’s where I find appreciation of her as an artist.

 

The Green Mile is a great movie, but I would never would have thought that it would be the basis of an R&B song that depicts violence – I’m all for it. Now, granted that SZA comes across as a soft and precious being, she’s rough around the edges, and is from New Jersey, so there’s toughness to her attitude. I mean, when someone shoots you in the back; someone you trusted with your heart, it’s telling that one compares it to a massacre.

 

“Shotgun to the back of my heart,
I don’t turn around to see who let one ring out
Said you’ll never do me wrong? Guess we see how that plays out”

 

There are those that you have to worry about when it comes to who has your back and the cliché is always that, it’s the people closest to you that will harm you first (or something along those lines). This is just example of that theory, and it’s spun in both ways, as SZA recalls shooting someone who was about to take her life, but she got the better of the situation before it went awry. In a metaphorical standpoint, cutting someone off could be the equivalence of killing someone; the loss of a friendship or relationship is always used in that context, so I wouldn’t see any reason for that not to be a reason now.

 

When the beat changes, it was simply great, but unlike Warm Winds, there weren’t 2 verses to accompany the beat (produced by Childish Major), but due to a large buzz around it, I Doubt It will be released as a full song, and I really can’t wait for that, because it sounded wicked. She had a dope flow around it as well.

 

The first song of Z that the world got to hear was Babylon, through the music video, but when the tracklist came out, it was revealed that Kendrick Lamar would be featured on it. The track was great on its own without him, but Kendrick has developed his reputation off the strength of his features, so why not? DJ Dahi, who has been providing insane beats for just about everyone lately (Worst Behaviour, Money Trees & Hell of a Night for examples), definitely laced one up for SZA, and it was enough that Kendrick added a verse without SZA’s knowledge to appear on the final version.

 

The first time I heard the song, was obviously when the video came out, and the message around it that I got at the time, was that she was baptizing herself, to cleanse her sins or whatnot. But through listening to the song, and depicting herself in a similar fashion as Jesus (thorny crown, crucifixion, the city of Babylon – Biblical references), it became more so that she was in a position where she was sacrificing herself in a way to save herself and the feelings of others who have developed a sort of negative vibe around her. The symbolism around the video and how it tied into the song was wicked, and even in the song itself, the message speaks to the listener about whether or not they’re able to look at themselves and ask if they’re able to live with the decisions they’ve made (good or bad), and also there’s the storyline between Kendrick & SZA as they play star-crossed lovers (it didn’t work out that way before, but with Kendrick’s addition, it fits well). Babylon was a historically rich city; one of the oldest in civilization that has remains still visible today, and one that withstood thousands of years of conflict until its untimely demise. Babylon is an adjective used to describe negativity, so it’s a fitting meaning behind the song, given its content. One of my favourites, and arguably the best on the album.

 

When I read that Sweet November was produced by Marvin Gaye, I was confused. The song was produced by someone who took the name, Marvin Gaye, or was it actually produced by Marvin Gaye before his death? I didn’t even know Marvin Gaye produced music, but it turns out, that was the case, and it’s the other one of my other favourites on the album (there are a lot of good songs, so it’s hard to just have one).

 

“Jesus called me collect last night
It took all of me not to answer
Daddy warned me the perils of play
Hard to deal with God, it’s his standard”

 

If SZA had come out in the 60s & 70s, it’s evident that she probably would have been a great fit for the Motown style that ruled the airwaves and clubs in that era. The opening lines were dope to me because it’s like her conscious calling but she doesn’t listen to it. They say that God appears in all forms, so having him in the form of your conscious isn’t a farfetched idea to have. Having been young and going through the mistakes that she did, her conscious is trying to reach out and tell her to make better decisions for herself so she won’t be hurt again, and that’s more evident in the 2nd verse.

 

“Heard you fucking with Tommy again
Remember where that landed you last time
That nigga don’t really love you girl
He just beds you every night it’s his past-time”       

 

Ignorance is bliss, right? As long as you’re getting something good, whether it be physical or not, many people are often blinded to a bad relationship, and run back to individuals because they want that old thing back. It’s something a lot of people can relate to, and I found it cool that she threw it in there for the sake of bringing it down to Earth. She was able to keep it funky and soulful at the same time, while at the same time keeping it real. Great song all around.

 

From completely Motown to completely close-to-the-Soft-Rock-border, Shattered Ring is a bit of a hidden gem on the album, because it truly doesn’t sound like anything else on the album, sonically. Taking up the fantasy scene like she did in Child’s Play, the references of Goldilocks (a random mention of Jadakiss), and masking her image as one that’s mysterious, I really didn’t know how to feel about it first, and it took me a while to really get into it. It’s as if SZA has been pitted in a scenario where she either has to hide her true being to make someone happy or even love her, or let the real her show and let them run. As for what the ring could represent, it could be a bond that was shattered; a relationship or friendship – definitely not a marriage or engagement, but rather the closeness that she experienced with someone that couldn’t be rebuilt. It’s pretty interesting, depending on how you interpret it, but like I said, it’s one of those that I had to get more of a handle on. The alternative rock-ish style that it presented definitely threw me off.

 

I like the double meaning with Omega, because not only is it the last song, if you went to church often enough, you’d know that God is the ‘Alpha and Omega’ (Omega is Greek for ‘last’, Alpha being ‘first’), and God is the beginning and end of all things, if you believe in God. As stated before, and pretty much any interview you’ve read or watched featuring SZA, she was brought up in a Muslim culture, so to hear a track that has some reference to that with an overall religious background, which was cool. The track itself is one of the better ones on the album that I frequently love to listen to (reminds me of Frank O’s Bad Religion in a way; not because of the Arabic language used). The song feels like it’s a prayer, and with it starting off with ‘let the church say Amen’ (which is usually done at the end of a prayer), it certainly feels that way.

 

“When you don’t know yourself
If it hurts you to explain
You’re God in my eyes
Just ride”

 

The song also feels like she’s giving advice as to just keeping true to yourself, and have faith, but at the same time, she’s looking for God and asks for forgiveness of sins, and even to help her move forward with life. It’s something that a lot of people often question – is God real? Does it exist? Will He/She help me with my problems? I also liked the fact that at the end of the song, she repeats ‘it’s the beginning’, which would contrast the song itself being the end of the album, but what looks to be the beginning of a great career.

 

I don’t listen to R&B often, and even the traditional sound of what R&B is has changed. It’s more alternative, and it’s ever changing to accompany different feels from broader ranges of music combined. Hip Hop is going through the same thing, but Hip Hop still has its traditional sound that many try to keep alive every day (you know the boom-bap original rap style). What TDE has done with their music, was to take different personalities and not tried to make them fit in the industry like a regular jigsaw puzzle. Rather, it’s like when you play Tetris and you have different shapes and sizes to try and complete a line (or multiple lines), and there’s one piece that you don’t need but will find some way to work it, each piece or each artist has their own purpose, and they work together in ways that I didn’t have a lot of faith in when SZA & Isaiah were signed. With See.SZA.Run and S under her belt, a new challenge with Z was presented, and she approached it with utmost creativity and a boost of confidence, as she introduces herself on her own two feet, rather than piggybacking her label-mates (although it wasn’t long lived). The variations of SZA’s music makes it feel like she can just about handle any style that she thinks of, and she gave you a lot on the album, which makes it a great statement to what she plans on doing in the long run, and it’s something that a lot of people have appreciated. Whether it was the lyrics, her flow, or the different imagery that she presented, it’s clear that TDE knew what they were doing when they signed her, and for people who are looking for someone unique to listen to, there’s no doubt that SZA should be that one, because she has the personality to really make it happen in a large way. This is big stepping stone; a solid piece of work that’ll really have a lingering feel for months and hopefully years to come. But for now, this is my opinion, this is my review

 

 That’s My Word & It STiXX

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