Today marks the culmination of a highly unlikely series of events in SZA's life. A year ago, the New Jersey native was working at Sephora, living at her parents' house in Maplewood, NJ, and making music that had very little in common with that of Kendrick Lamar or Schoolboy Q. Today, she's signed to the same label as the aforementioned rappers, living in L.A. and releasing her major label debut, the Z EP. Stream the ten track project above, courtesy of Spotify.
Still retaining the woozy, chillwave-influenced "glitter trap" of her two previous EPs, See.SZA.Run and S, Z finds SZA collaborating with TDE labelmates Lamar and Isaiah Rashad, Chance The Rapper, and producers Mac Miller, XXYYXX, Toro Y Moi and DJ Dahi. Surprisingly enough, the one song produced by old collaborator Felix Snow (who produced the majority of S) is the most immediate fish out of water here. "Julia" eschews the rest of Z's apparent lack of interest in radio singles in favor of a bright, upbeat gloss that seems to belie the vast majority of SZA's intriguing qualities. Were it not for the heavy reverb applied to her vocals, "Julia" could have appeared on Solange Knowles' last EP, which isn't a diss so much as it is a shocking realization of how distinctive SZA sounds everywhere else on Z.
This brand of intriguingly out-of-focus, offbeat R&B that SZA has crafted doesn't seem like the most logical bedmate for Schoolboy Q's hedonistic gangster rap, Kendrick Lamar's paranoid street parables, or even Ab-Soul's conspiracy-driven weirdo rap, and SZA addressed this apparent incongruity between her and her labelmates in an interview that Billboard posted yesterday. Explaining the initial difficulty she had fitting in with TDE's all-male roster, SZA said, "I'm like this random girl from a small town and I enunciate all my words and I wear dirty Chucks and my hair is never combed; I don't think they knew what to make of me. At first, I think they looked at me like an alien or something. 'Your music is weird, you're weird, but we like you.'"
But as was also apparent on Isaiah Rashad's recent Cilvia Demo, TDE is a label that thrives on letting its artists do their own thing, and while their roster of in-house producers is stellar, a quick look at Z's production credits shows that the label's perfectly fine with letting their artists seek collaborators elsewhere. That's how we wind up with tracks like "HiiJack" on Z, in which the debt SZA owes to indie pop is liquidated by Toro Y Moi, whose production splits the difference between the indie / R&B chasm that Solange has often bemoaned. Like most other tracks on the EP, "HiiJack" doesn't feel like an attempt by SZA or her producers to adapt themselves to each others' styles, but rather a true, personal collaboration.
Take the two tracks that Mac Miller produced (oddly not under cover of his Larry Fisherman production alias), "Ur" and "Warm Winds." Since late 2012, Miller's been moving away from the frat boy, party-rap aesthetic of his early work, and towards a heady, introspective rap format that counts Flying Lotus and Jay Electronica as collaborators. Stylistically, his tracks on Z fall right in line with recent tracks of his own like "Diablo" or "Amen," and his choice to work with SZA seems less like savvy marketing and more like two careers intersecting at just the right moment. Two years ago, Kate Bush-style keyboards would be the last thing you'd expect to find on a Mac Miller track, but now, their inclusion on "Warm Winds" feels almost logical.
The last aspect of Z that would seem remiss to gloss over is the Marvin Gaye production credit on "Sweet November." The song is basically a straight rip of Gaye's "Mandota," with very little post-production on the part of SZA and TDE, but SZA takes the previously-instrumental track and turns it into an Amy Winehouse-esque exercise in reviving old soul records. "Sweet November" doesn't bear the exact same sonic characteristics of the rest of Z, but it feels much more in-tune with the EP's tone than "Julia" does, with a trippy '70s sound befitting SZA much more so than radio-ready pop. That song's distorted guitars even bleed into the beginning of the next track, "Shattered Ring," which quickly (but deftly) transitions back to the cloudy, modern sounds that are SZA's bread and butter. This nuance in track sequencing is just another thing that makes Z SZA's most carefully-constructed and enjoyable EP yet.
SZA and Isaiah Rashad were both signed to TDE around the same time, and Rashad was first to release new material with the 50-minute-long Cilvia Demo hitting the internet in January, but looking back, it seems like SZA made good calls by waiting a few additional months and keeping her release trimmed to just over 40 minutes. Z lacks glut and has very few forgettable moments, making it one of the most enjoyable major label debuts in recent memory. In future, look out for SZA not behind the counter of Sephora, but on future TDE releases, where she's sure to turn up for show-stopping guest appearances.