Don't Call SZA An "R&B Artist"

With a new album from Schoolboy Q, another LP expected from Kendrick Lamar, and a collaborative effort from the full Black Hippy crew, 2014 is looking to be L.A. label Top Dawg Entertainment’s year to shine. Yet even with its stable of game-changing MCs, there’s more to TDE than gangsta rap. Enter: SZA, a New Jersey singer whose songs blur genre lines from ‘80s New Wave to ethereal pop. We caught up with the artist (pronounced, Sizza, in case you were wondering) at a Los Angeles park while she was taking a break from her upcoming album Z. ("This is literally the hardest thing I've ever spent time on in my whole life," she says of the album.) Over the course of our conversation, we touch on her effortless style, what she’s learned from her fellow Top Dawg artists, and the troubling racial implications of being labeled an "R&B artist."

Photographed by Yoshino.
Last time we talked, Z was going to be the next in a series of EPs — is that still the plan?
"This one is titled Z but it's definitely not seven songs — it's definitely not an EP. Recording it has been really intense — ripping myself down and building myself back up again. It's also the first time I've ever had features on my project. I handpicked them and I think that they're really important. It's just been a really interesting process. For the last two, I finished them the night before they dropped and I did the majority of the work the week before they dropped. I've been working on this one since last June."

Speaking of features, can you talk a little bit about the people you're working with?
"I don't want to give them away, because I want to surprise people. But, I picked them based on who I've always wanted to be. Even though they're current, they exhibit something in themselves that I've always wanted — a certain freedom, a certain groove, a certain vibe that I personally haven't accomplished just because I'm a different person. I'm more of a sad, depressed '80s vibe. These people are maybe something that I'm not naturally like, but they make me feel good. There are some unlikely pairs, for sure. I'm really happy about it!"
Photographed by Yoshino.
You're often referred to by journalists as an "R&B" singer, possibly because you've signed to a hip-hop label. What do you think about that genre tag when it comes to your work?
"Well, here's the thing: I don't think it's because I'm on Top Dawg, I think it's because I'm black. I think it's easier to label me R&B because I'm a woman of color, when you wouldn't call Adele R&B or you wouldn't call Amy Winehouse R&B. Those people are R&B, but because those people aren't black it doesn't make as much sense to label them. To me, I would just want the same open mind that anyone would give to any artist that wasn't of color. Like Jamiroquai — he was nuts. No one wanted to label Jamiroquai, even though he sang borderline funk/R&B-type music. Just because I'm signed to Top Dawg and they're a hip-hop label, it doesn't define me as an artist. They don't want me to be defined as having the stamp of hip-hop or R&B. It's something that I try to break a lot. It's one thing if I generally just sound like straight R&B to you, but I wasn't even raised on R&B. I was raised mostly on classical jazz and I danced to Björk when I was working with Alvin Ailey at the American Ballet Theater. I listened to a lot of Beirut, Jamiroquai, Norah Jones…I just try not to categorize things. Depending on what you look like, that's what you'll pop up as on Spotify. It's 2014, so it's important not to give too much importance to an aesthetic."

How much time have you spent hanging out and working with the other TDE artists?
"Tons! I love these boys. They're literally my family. When I come to L.A., me and Isaiah [Rashad], we actually live together when I'm here. And then Kendrick's done with touring, so I see him almost every day. We've all been building in the studio together. And then Schoolboy Q, we recorded together for his album. We just all go to dinner together; we spend a lot of time together. We're all getting to know each other on a musical level and on a personal, humanistic level."
Photographed by Yoshino.
What have you learned from working with your labelmates?
"Kendrick's teaching me to have a lot more confidence in myself — to fight for what I believe in and stand my ground. Q teaches me to be me: Not to have as much structure, to just let loose a little. Ab-Soul teaches me get my ideas out exactly the way that I see them musically, even if it's going into the studio just to do one line or one sound. Like, he'll call me, or Kendrick, or Isaiah into the studio just to sing one word — like the word 'happy' — and then be like 'get out of town.' The fact that he's so committed to his vision is just beautiful. Isaiah has taught me to be haphazardly creative: To let it all flow out, to let it all happen, to shoot in the dark and see what happens when the lights come on. Jay Rock has taught me perseverance. Same with the management team — we're all together every day. We just vibe off each other."

Can you talk a little bit about your personal style. How did you decide what to wear to the shoot?
"It's funny, my personal style and what I actually wore to the shoot aren't that connected. I think I was nervous, because being photographed is one of my biggest phobias. I'm definitely more of a Patagonia, Birkenstocks, sandles-with-socks sort of person. I wear a lot of Converse — I guess I did wear those to the shoot. I wore my platform orange Converse. I guess that was my version of being dressy. They're like this Hi-Liter orange color. They have a little platform heel to them. They make me feel weird, so I usually don't wear them ever, but with that dress I thought it was really awesome. And, the dress was this white lace, almost hippy-esque dress. It was borderline really sexual...It made me feel prettier than I usually do. It moved in the sunlight. But, I kind of dirtied it up with my regular old chucks that I always wear. When I went the Grammys, I wore a men's suit with a random Haynes undershirt and heels and all this extra stuff, but I just felt comfortable with a regular undershirt."
Photographed by Yoshino.
Speaking of the Grammys, Kendrick had that huge performance this year. What was your experinece like attending?
"It was probably the most inspiring thing I've ever witnessed in my life. No bullshit. I left that place feeling totally inspired by Kendrick. Kendrick is a f*cking rock star in his whole being. It was just beautiful that Kendrick got to show the world why he's more than just a rapper. That was amazing."

Photographed by Yoshino.
Your video for "Ice Moon" is filmed in the forest, and you have a marine biology background. Do you see yourself as having a special connection with nature?
"There's something that I find way more interesting about things that aren't humans. My album cover is an orangutang hanging from a branch wearing a gold chain. Animals have so many caste systems and levels, but they aren't controlled by anger or jealousy or greed. They don't have a choice. They can just procreate — that's just what they're supposed to do. There's something beautiful about the way God put that all together. When I look at myself and my music, I try to just be in my most natural state. I don't want to overthink it or pretend. I don't want to feel uncomfortable. My biggest accomplishment would be to just disappear for a while and go live on a reservation with orangutans or volunteer at a zoo. That was my plan originally — I'm supposed to have an internship at a zoo in Madagascar right now."

No way. What were you supposed to be doing there?
"Well, I was supposed to be writing a thesis and doing research while staying there for a year interning, but I never got there [laughs]. I started getting off aquatic life and more into exotic animals. I was going to switch to the Amazon, or something like that. I still might just go. No one would care who I was — it's not like they do now — but all the way in Madagascar, I could go in a year from now or two years."
Photographed by Yoshino.
How has it been adjusting to life in the public eye?
"My social skills are a little off. I'm not polite as I once was, and that bothers me. Even now I walk to 7-Eleven in my pajamas a lot. I don't have a television here in Los Angeles or in my apartment in The Bronx. And, whenever I'm on the Internet, it's just to look at food recipes. I only go on Twitter to tweet something — I get in trouble if I don't say anything. So, when someone recognizes me on the street, it's just nuts! Usually when someone's staring at me, I think there's something on my face or my hair is messed up — like I'm about to be embarrassed. A week ago at 7-Eleven — and this is in Carson, CA — I was looking at DVDs and I felt someone breathing on my neck. There was this guy taking a picture of himself behind me. Like he's posing and smiling with his arm sort of around my waist, but not actually touching me. I was so freaked out. I turned around and was like 'Oh! You're so close to me! How are you?!' It was weird."

Wow, that's super creepy.
"But, then yesterday we went to this restaurant called Sage that I love a lot — it's a vegan restaurant. A waitress walked up to me and said 'I don't want to get in trouble, but are you SZA?' and then she started singing my song while I was eating. I was like, 'What are you doing Sunday?' I told her to meet me at our post-Grammys show and she just hung with us all night. She came backstage and hung out with me and Kendrick and Soul and Jay Rock and Isaiah and drank with us. It was just awesome and random, but I kind of got in trouble. My manager was like, 'You don't know her. She could be crazy.' But, to me, she was just so warm. She was so sweet and couldn't contain herself. I felt I could trust that someone so genuine wouldn't murder us all when we got backstage [laughs]. Now I text her. I think she's awesome!"
Photographed by Yoshino.
Last time we talked, you mentioned being inspired a lot by film. What have you been inspired by lately?
"Sometimes I feel like Baby from Dirty Dancing, with Patrick Swayze. She's got tons of degrees, she's accomplished, she's in the middle of a PhD. But, she's kind of an outcast and wandered into dance, and I kind of did the same — I wandered into music. I mix my real life with movies I've seen. I think I've always done that."

In a year from now, after the album comes out, where do you see yourself?
"I have no idea. I will say that I have a marker. Before I didn't have a marker. My manager was asking me, what's my vice? All the boys have vices — most artists have vices. I don't have any physical vices. My only vice is more. I never appreciate anything for the moment. I'm too busy worrying, like, f*ck that! What's happening next year? In two years? But, after the Grammys, that's the first time it hit me like a ton of bricks: I need a Grammy. If Lorde has a Grammy, I could definitely achieve that. I think it was really inspiring to see Lorde win a Grammy. She's a young girl that sings a little different that isn't so everything like your general pop star. But, she's an incredible performer with a beautiful voice who writes beautifully. I think that gave me hope that I could still be 100% myself and make the music I want to make, but still have recognition for that."
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