SZA sounds groggy when she answers the phone. “I just woke up,” she explains with a raspy whisper. It’s just past 5 PM in New York, which means it’s a little after noon in Hawaii, where she’s located during our call. After rising early the past few days to celebrate her niece’s birthday, SZA (born Solána Rowe) can finally sleep in now that she’s alone.
She might need that extra rest after the whirlwind that followed the release of her acclaimed debut album, Ctrl, in June. It was such a hit, a track that wasn’t a single went platinum and became a Top 40 jam. The album topped several “Best of 2017” lists, and performances took her around the world from New York’s Saturday Night Live stage to festival grounds in New Zealand. Best of all, she earned five Grammy nominations (including Best New Artist) and became the most-nominated woman at this year’s ceremony, which is just days away.
When the nominations were announced in November, SZA couldn’t immediately respond online. A recent visit to the Apple Store somehow left her locked out of her iCloud account, which kept her offline for about 14 hours, she tells BAZAAR.com. But being unplugged allowed her to cherish to moment to herself.
“It was cool to just kind of accept what was happening without reacting,” she says. The following day, she finally addressed the news with a lengthy, emotional Instagram post that detailed her struggles and insecurities about making music prior to this album. (“I remember pretending to be vegan cause that’s all I could afford,” she wrote.)
After 2017’s success, SZA kicks off 2018 with a step into the fashion world, as she stars in Gap’s ads for its new logo remix collection, alongside other young, rising talents. “All the people involved were people I respected and they really were good friends, like Metro [Boomin, the producer],” she says.
The campaign’s nostalgic ’90s aesthetic is the perfect fit for her comfy-meets-sexy personal style, which includes oversized sweaters, baggy pants, and clunky sneakers, like those she wears in the shoot.
“I love Gap,” she gushes. “It was just super random and accidentally iconic.” SZA’s own renown, however, is anything but accidental.
Before the ads launched, SZA talked to BAZAAR.com about her upcoming Grammy performance, working with Solange, and how she internalizes her epic successes.
SZA responds to her accomplishments—like “Love Galore” going platinum, her Grammy noms, and her recent NAACP Image Award—with genuine surprise and gratitude on social media. It’s hard to believe someone so talented could be this taken aback by well-deserved recognition, but it’s like that “every time” for the singer.
“At first, [success is] scary, because it made me feel weird and delusional. I’m not even the kind of person that’s surprised all the fucking time because I usually know what’s going on. I usually kind of pride myself in having a pretty cool level of perception, but I have none when it comes to myself! And I guess this has been a very powerful lesson in self-perception and reality and what’s really happening. Every step of the way I’m always just like, ‘What the fuck is happening? What does this mean?’ Because I really never imagined any of this for myself. Like, really never, ever, ever, ever imagined this for myself. And I’m trying to figure out how to accept it instead of being in shock and being afraid of all the things that are happening to me.”
I remember pretending to be vegan cause that’s all I could afford lol (chips avocado n salad mix ) I remember sleeping on everyone’s couch cause I missed the train AGAIN (thank yall for having me lol ) . Sold my beloved 500$ grillz for 50 bucks at the gold shop for train fair( I was SICK ? lol ). I BEGGED Punch for writers on this project cus I thought no one would ever like me the way I was . He said “U don’t need em”. I remember crying cus I didn’t have any hits or a quantifiable “sound”.. I remember feeling like damn maybe I suck . maybe I should try something else ? Maybe I’m jus wasting space ..Life’s weird . I Didn’t have any friends growing up. never gave my parents an opportunity to say “wow my kids killing it” didn’t graduate or do any fly shit before my nana died . been fired from every job I ever had ..I remember sobbing on the phone w punch pleading for the album not to come out cause I couldn’t take the embarrassment . Just wanted another week . Another day ?..he ignored me n said I’d be fine…This entire thing puts my wildest dreams to shame. I dunno what to say cause I dunno how to accept its even happening to me lol ? I’ve never won anything in my life even until this week (THANK YOU SOULTRAIN AWARDS!!) it all just feels strange somehow BUT IM SO OVERWHELMINGLY GRATEFUL FOR THIS STRANGENESS!! . I’m so in awe of Gods plan.. I just wanna live up to it. Thank you for listening to me.. thank you for understanding me.. thank u for bonding w my thoughts just the way they were. INFINITE GRATITUDE to the Recording Academy for this INCREDIBLE honor. I can’t even believe I’ve been considered. God bless every person who worked on this album or gave it an ear (specially the producers of the century @somethingnebula @iam_c_lang @thankgod4cody ?) . Thank you Top and Punch for believing in me no matter what (even when I’m on your LAST nerves?) . Thank u RCA for giving me new wings?? THANK YOU GOD FOR THIS LIFE I DONT UNDERSTAND . #Ctrl.. a concept . #mygrannynominatedfor5grammys #TDE
Her successes have taught her there’s no be-all and end-all definition of “best.”
“I’ve learned that there is no general ‘best.’ And I really thought that there was a general best—there’s a pool of things that we all think are awesome, but there’s a specific general ‘best’ of a pool. So I was like, ‘Okay, if you don’t belong in the center pool of understood “best-ness,” then it’s like you’re not valid as a human being.’ I always felt that way, and I felt that way about myself. I was like, ‘I don’t want to be mediocre. I don’t want to jump in the water.’ And then I realized, people don’t really care about which pool you’re in, they just care that you get in the water and do what your personal best is for you.
“I guess it’s really a compilation of multiple mini pools. Everybody has their own little kiddie pool and whoever makes that shit work and makes it the most worthwhile, that’s really what separates us as human beings. It really doesn’t make you better than anybody else. It’s just, how well can you explore your differences? I think I was more concerned about ‘Am I good enough?’ rather than how to magnify things that make me different as a human being, because I was ashamed of those things. But it’s cool. I appreciate this life.”
“People don’t really care about which pool you’re in, they just care that you get in the water.”
So how is she processing her Grammy nominations days before the awards show?
“I’ve spent less time trying to figure out what it means for me, ’cause I think that was some wild shit. When you get nominated, then you try to figure out what it means for you. It’s like, ‘So I’m good? I’m kind of? Maybe? If I win?’ Then you get into this whole section of, ‘Will I win?’ Then it’s like you’re in a whole other rabbit hole; you’re missing the whole point. Everything that’s happening shouldn’t be the all-indicator, but you should be paying attention and doing your very fucking best, whatever that means for you in that moment. The other stuff is symptomatic of you believing and doing your best. So you have to do that. It’s hard not to get caught up in the ‘What’s happening?!’ type of energy.”
She’s creeping into the film world after creating an original song for the Black Panther soundtrack, “All the Stars,” with Kendrick Lamar.
“I just love that movie and I love the concept. I wanted to be in the movie after. It’s so gnarly. I’m super proud of the cast and the intention with the movie, and having someone like Kendrick to be involved in it, it’s just genius. I’m just happy to be any tiny part of it at all.”
After years of being on the same record label as Lamar and collaborating on a few tracks with him (including her tongue-in-cheek Ctrl track, “Doves in the Wind”), SZA fully trusts the rapper with everything from musical guidance to advice on birthday gifts.
“I trust him wholeheartedly with everything creative, everything sonic, everything visual. Like I had to buy a fucking birthday present, and I’m really new to the whole celebrating of birthdays, even my birthday, but now that I’m really involved, I’m really excited about it. So I’m trying to make it a really interesting experience. But this time, I had to get a birthday present for someone that I was scared about because I wasn’t sure if I was on the right track, and he gave me some really good insight. He’s the only person who has really good, ‘This is a good idea, period.’ Our rapport, I feel like at this point, I respect him on every level, way beyond music. He’s a gnarly dude.”
One of SZA’s newer collaborators is Solange, who directed her “The Weekend” music video, which was released in December.
“What’s interesting is this is probably the first time I didn’t get to incorporate myself, but I definitely feel like it was a learning experience in itself. I just have so much respect for Solange and her vision and the way that she communicates with the world. I love her language, and I think I just wanted to be interpreted in her language. I feel like I have a style, even with every other video with every other person, it’s whimsical and it has a lot of like dark nuances that are like ‘dark Disney.’ That’s where my brain goes all the time and I think we have a lot of different influences. I’m so obsessed with people who don’t see the world the way I view the world, because I think everyone sees the world differently, but there are some people who see it so much differently than you that it’s like, ‘Wow, how’d you get that?’ I think that is so enamoring. I love the way she sees it.”
Solange’s directorial imprint may be obvious in the visuals, but that’s what SZA wanted.
“I directed every video that I’ve ever put out, so I just wanted to not be involved in this way. I wanted to allow myself to learn more than anything. She has her own production company, her own crazy stylist team that pulled all these clothes I’ve never seen before. It’s so crazy. And like, everyone is a woman—there was actually some really cool dudes, there were like two dudes. Everyone is super tough. It’s just awesome. It was cool to be in her regime and get lost in it.”
SZA is no stranger to being in the presence of strong women—she featured two of them, her mother and grandmother, in recordings on her album. Growing up with and being raised by them was “very special,” the singer recalls.
“They’re very different women. My grandma’s really tough, my mom is soft-to-the-touch tough. I can’t explain it. It’s like a different approach on both ends, and I think my grandma is making sure that I’m not too soft. I’d be scared to speak up for myself a lot, and she’s always like, ‘Don’t do that. You can’t do that. You can’t live your life like that.’ And I think she’s been through a lot of instances where she didn’t speak up, and it negatively affected her. I think she’s just fed the fuck up. But my mom has a lot of grace and a lot of energy where she comes in a space. Even if everything is going to shit, she’s just like, ‘I’m fine, everything’s fine. I’ll make it work.’ She’s not offended by anyone, it’s very interesting.”
She also vaguely hinted at her performance at the awards ceremony.
“I can tell you it’s not ‘The Weekend.'” [Laughs]
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
From: Harper’s BAZAAR US