SZA, Z | Album Review
With R&B going through an identity crisis the more eclectic-based alt-R&B style allows more flexibility and crossover. 23-year old SZA, signed to Top Dawg Entertainment, embraces alt-soul like a boss on her full-length debut, Z. Z certainly sounds little like other contemporary R&B efforts, choosing to pave its own path through ten consistent, enjoyable songs. The lack of a true misstep makes Z one of the year’s most fascinating efforts from an ambitious artist that few are aware of. Calling it a masterpiece or game-changer may be an exaggeration, but it’s hard not to praise this captivating effort.
“UR” opens the effort mysteriously, utilizing a slower tempo. The production has its quirks, which seem to be a perfect match for SZA, who seems to be a unique personality in her own right. The chorus of “UR”, sporting lush and smooth vocals, is quite simple: “U R, U R…”
The verses are what contain the true lyrical meat, including:
“Type-B personality/extrovert, introvert, commonalities / A Type-A Personality / just dumb enough to lie to me.”
As odd as “UR” is, once it settles in and the listener feels the ‘vibe’, its nothing short of exceptional.
“Child’s Play” is not shabby in the least either. Where “UR” is a bit off-putting initially, “Child’s Play” embraces the groove from the onset. Again, the ‘vibe’ and mood of the cut plays a pivotal role. SZA delivers clever lyrics, using childhood toys as a comparison point for the bigger picture of relationships.
“Stuck in Nintendo, get the controller / Street Fighters and such / I’ll finish him…”
Adding odd-ball rapper Chance the Rapper further strengthens the cause of “Child’s Play,” particularly with rhymes like
“Ash on my skin, when the record low temps for the wind blow / only write rhythm to the tardiest of tempos.”
“Julia” shows no loss of momentum – it’s first track with a quicker tempo. The groove has an 80s pop/R&B quality. Even though there’s more enthusiasm with the quicker tempo, the lyrics still possess weight:
“Loving alone is what you make it / stay for the storm if you can take it / but pray for a rainbow…”
SZA goes on later to say:
“I didn’t know you tried / ‘cause you wanted more…Things don’t happen the way you hoped to /I’m just keeping my little hope baby…”
Here vocals on the refrain in particular are stunning.
“Warm Winds,” featuring Isaiah Rashad, is a two-part song. Beginning slower and more lethargic in tempo, there’s still a notable groove. The vocal performance on the first part is performed in undertone, again fitting the moody, alt-soul vibe. Lyrically, there is no shortage of analyzable songwriting. That includes:
“Watching over your every mistake / digging out of graves is never easy / handing you my shovel, here to take…”
Later, on the second part of the song, where Rashad assists on the chorus, SZA states:
“Quit clipping on your feet / quit clipping on your wings / sometimes we hate to leave somebody / what’s happening to we / warm winds on a space ride…”
Still, her most creative, if painful line is, “Sometimes, I crack my veins so bad / just to see if it’s blue…” All the audience can do is listen in awe, hearing the high level of musicianship being employed.
On “Hiiijack,” the production is filled with electronic touches, giving it an even more contemporary sound. Even so, it certainly doesn’t compare to generic electro-R&B – there is more substance and investment.
“Young savage girl, lost among the lily pads…”
While “Hiiijack” is another winner, “Green Mile” is definitely the showstopper. Moody from the get-go, the second “Green Mile” begins, the identity of the track is easily perceptible to the listener. Dramatic lyricism with references of shooting truly makes “Green Mile” as captivating as it is.
“Sharpshooter in my backyard / killed a small boy once, never told no one / If it wasn’t for my shotgun, he’d be alive and I’d be in heaven.”
“Green Mile” can be interpreted in a number of ways, but literally or figuratively, it easily ranks among the top echelon of Z.
“Babylon” proves to be another winner with SZA getting the assist from the unstoppable force that is Kendrick Lamar. Perhaps “Babylon” didn’t strike as personally as much as the other magnificent joints, it still receives an ‘A’ overall. The crucifixion references are definitely bold (“Bring on the thorny crown / crucify me”).
“Sweet November” is equally, if not more notable than “Babylon.” Soulful, it hearkens back to neo-soul. Couple that with SZA’s knack for intelligent lyrics and “Sweet November” is a match made in heaven. Well, maybe not quite:
“Jesus called me collect last night / it took all of me not to answer it / Daddy warned me of the perils of play / hard to deal God’s standards.”
Verse two gets even better, or rather, more explicit:
“Heard you f*cking with Tommy again / Remember where that landed you last time / That n*gga don’t really love you girl / He just f*cks you every night it’s his past-time.”
“Shattered Ring” has a difficult act to follow. The more pop-rock oriented cut (still alt-R&B) is solid, though not the best of the best. Still, hard to deny certain moments:
“Giddy up Goldilocks, you took too long to save me / Bumping that Jadakiss is dangerous for sanity.”
On closer “Omega,” the mysteriousness that characterized the opener returns. Filled with spiritual references, “Omega” is a fitting conclusion.
Ultimately, Z is a home run. With so many R&B albums that come and go lacking that ‘extra special something’, Z has it. Weird, yet beautiful, Z seems like a step in the right direction in which R&B should go. That isn’t to say that an alternative R&B album like this is the perfect blueprint, but it also doesn’t confine the genre to clichés or limiting trends. SZA is definitely a supremely talented young artist to watch.
Gems: “UR,” “Child’s Play,” “Julia,” “Green Mile” & “Sweet November”
SZA • Z • Top Dawg • US Release: 4.8.14
Photo Credit: Top Dawg
NOTE: Originally published on Brent Music Reviews on April 10, 2014.