Review Summary: Bring on the thorny crown
“It’s the beginning,” sings Solana Rowe in the final moments of Z
, her debut album. Things sure are looking up for the artist known as SZA; interviews have made it clear she isn’t quite
satisfied with her own portfolio just yet. It instead seems she’s preparing herself for a big landing with her next release, whenever that happens- a fact which initially casts Z
in a less agreeable light. It’s inevitable to wonder, after all, that if SZA herself doesn’t feel ecstatic about the music she’s releasing, then who says her listeners will?
Thing is, the girl has high standards. The captivating fact she shared with culture magazine Mass Appeal speaks for itself, after all: Rowe measures her own success by whether or not her grandma has seen her on TV yet. She aims high with her music, and won’t head home until she gets what she wants- to be recognized for the songs she spends so much time on. In that case, Z
is a precursor of sorts- a collection of songs that exists so that other, more formidable, ones can be written in the future. It’s an album designed to build SZA’s repertoire, to get her name out there so that when her day comes, we’ll have at least an inkling of a clue exactly who hit us.
This needn’t be interpreted to mean Z
is anything unworthy of our attention. The record offers moments, candid and clear, of Rowe before the fame that'll surely head her way. It’s an opportunity to see what this artist is all about today, not next year- and on this release, the main topics come from love found and lost. In immediate standout “Hiiijack,” SZA’s flushed with desire; when “Green Mile” starts up, it’s the last thing she wants to feel. Lyrically, Z
explores the emotions tethered to relationships, and the fact that, whether too strong or too sparing for the moment, they always seem to exist to the wrong degree. It’s a simple enough idea, and one the 23-year-old musician wears well. But while the lyrical themes here are relatable to anyone with a heart, their precise presentation leaves much room for ambiguity. Rowe’s vaguer musings are hard to latch onto (“Stationary, birds await; small canary, princess,”) and the more significant passages feel too straight-laced for the listener to intimately connect with (“Type A personality / extrovert, introvert, commonalities; a Type A personality / just dumb enough to lie to me”.) They're not bad lyrics by any means, and it helps matters that SZA delivers lines like these in an understated manner- they'd feel inadequate having a more prominent role here.
The magic on this release, though, it’s got more to do with the music behind the words. And coincidence this is not, considering SZA collaborated with a legion of fellow musicians here- looking to unanticipated sources for creative fuel. She procured Toro Y Moi, XXYYXX and Dae One for production duties on the release, as well as enlisting Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper for rap features- in other words, the singer’s marketing herself up rather nicely. More importantly, though, Rowe shows her true potential when she latches onto these big names. Nowhere else on Z
are her recollections of heartbreak more poignant than when they’re preceded by Chance’s characteristically off-kilter contribution via “Child’s Play”- the two artists suit each other remarkably well. Similarly, Rowe’s voice reminds the listener why it’s so damned special the instant it tails Kendrick’s feature on “Babylon.” SZA’s croons are incessantly sugary-sweet- it’s just kind of easy to skim over that when our minds are back in Compton.
So if Z
’s main mission is to build up its creator for a gargantuan full-length release in the near future, it’s serving its purpose rather well. After all, it’s hard to imagine such an album not absolutely killing it when considering the ridiculously high standards Rowe places on herself. If my grandparents were to get into any modern music group in April 2014, it’d probably be Future Islands; maybe by this time next year it’ll be SZA.