(January 31, 2023). When I mention that I’ve been following popular music for roughly five decades, it doesn’t take a math wizard to know that I’m much closer to being a baby boomer than I am to either Generation Y or Z (although I’m technically neither of the three… Gen-X here, baby!).
So it goes without saying that my musical diet while growing up, particularly my R&B palette, consisted regularly of soul queens, goddesses and empresses like Aretha, Gladys, Dionne, Patti, Chaka, Natalie, Stephanie, Anita and, of course, Whitney… “real” singers who knew their way around a tune, who knew melody, subtlety and nuance… women who, often with church-honed vocals, could own a song, whether it was theirs to begin with or not.
None of those singers needed gimmicks, like initialisms for names. Their voices were their gadgets—or, more accurately, their gifts. One need only to mention their first names and you knew exactly who they and their signature hits were!
So folks in my generation—and I’m obviously generalizing here—usually give a side-eye to Grammy award-winning names like H.E.R. and SZA, two of today’s best known and most celebrated R&B/pop singers, the latter of whom happens to be breaking chart records left and right during this very young year…and folks are taking notice.
SZA’s latest album SOS—only her second full-length one—was released in December and is currently topping the Billboard 200 list for its seventh straight week (its entire chart existence to date), with no end in sight. Its enduring popularity is being fueled by not just one but a multitude of songs that have struck a collective nerve with music consumers everywhere.
To wit, at least twelve of SOS’ 23 tracks have populated the Hot 100 singles chart for each of the album’s first six weeks (with this week’s new Hot 100 data yet to be released as of press time). That is a chart first!
In this era of release-week chart blitzes where most of a new album’s track list will only impact the Hot 100 for the first two or three weeks before the majority of the songs quickly disappear, SZA’s Hot 100 longevity with the tracks from SOS is a major accomplishment, one that neither Drake nor Taylor Swift—the two biggest chart titans of the past decade-plus—has pulled off with any of their LPs.
It means that more than half the songs on SOS have lasted beyond the initial curiosity of release week. These songs actually have staying power.
What’s more, SZA has entered some rare air in a number of other significant categories.
She’s only the third Black woman in history, after Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, to have an album spend as many as seven weeks at No. 1. Whitney had three of those (her first two self-titled albums and The Bodyguard soundtrack) while Mariah has had one (1993’s Music Box).
SZA is also only the third woman of any race or genre, after Taylor Swift and Adele, to have an album do that in the past 20 years (since February 2003). Taylor has had three such albums while Adele has had two. One would have to go back to 1996 to find another woman who’s had one last longer (Alannis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill spent its twelfth and final week at No. 1 that year).
So just who is this SZA that’s been flying under my and my friends’ analog radar for the past several months while today’s primary music consumers have been eating up her music like digital Skittles?
First let’s get the name right: SZA is pronounced “SIZ-zuh” (like scissor without a hard R at the end). It’s not “zha” as in Zsa Zsa Gabor, as one of my fellow quinquagenarian friends pronounced it recently when I mentioned her success.
SZA was born Solána Imani Rowe in St. Louis in 1989 and will turn 34 this November. She’s with Top Dawg Entertainment, the label that made rapper Kendrick Lamar famous and which has now made SZA its second-most recognized star (and now may be its top artist with Lamar having announced his latest album will be his last with TDE).
SZA is a reluctant superstar. She’s been in the game for a minute (more than ten years to be exact), yet she is only on her second full-length studio album.
Her first, 2017’s Ctrl, came at a time when the only female R&B artists crossing into mainstream, superstar, first-name-needed-only territory were Beyoncé and Rihanna.
Ctrl is still on the Billboard 200 today (in its 293rd week on the survey it resides in the top 20). In history, only one other R&B album by a female has spent longer on the list—Rihanna’s ANTI—at 351 weeks and counting.
So while the world waited for Beyoncé’s Renaissance (her first solo studio album since 2016’s Lemonade) and is still waiting for Rihanna’s followup to that year’s ANTI, SZA laid low, releasing only a few one-off singles (mostly features) here and there. The fact that Ctrl has remained on the chart all this time since its June 2017 release should have been our first clue that SZA’s next era would be huge!
SZA’s songs have been described as ethereal, emotionally raw, and deeply personal. They expose her flaws, her growth (or her self-professed lack thereof), and her vulnerability…even her self-hate at times. As a product of her generation, SZA’s songs go places topically that none of the aforementioned 20th century icons would dare even consider during their day (or even now).
Judging by recent Reddit postings and YouTube comments associated with her work, SZA’s music resonates with the younger generation for those reasons. Her fan base is not atypical in today’s world. They’re far more connected with their favorite artists than we ever were; social media has afforded them that luxury.
Whereas this kind of artist access has made SZA and other buzz-worthy acts rich and very famous, it also comes at a price: it means SZA and her peers have to deliver the goods. They have to come across more authentically to their fans, so much so that the fans see themselves and their lives being played out in the lyrics of the artists they so adore.
“Kill Bill,” SZA’s No. 2-peaking (so far) Hot 100 single that has been knocking on the door to No. 1 for three weeks behind first Taylor Swift and now Miley Cyrus, describes how the R&B phenom wants to knock off both her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend for their indiscretions. The song is inspired by fiction—specifically the Quentin Tarantino movies bearing the same name—but who among SZA’s fans haven’t harbored this kind of anger and resentment after a relationship gone bad?
SZA isn’t delivering totally new messages, by the way. My generation (or perhaps the one before me) also had its tales of double-murder play out in song, specifically in 1970s releases like Vicki Lawrence’s “The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia” and Cher’s “Dark Lady.” Both of those No. 1 pop tunes also involved cheating men and their mistresses being axed in crimes of passion.
But those songs also came across as novelty, story songs with circumstances so specific in nature and so mysteriously revealed that listeners were more enthralled than they were empathetic. The protagonists’ murderous involvement wasn’t even known until those songs’ final verses.
In SZA’s “Kill Bill,” however, the singer makes her intentions clear from the first chorus (“I might kill my ex, not the best idea, his new girlfriend’s next”). Her only hesitancy is that the text messages she sends may incriminate her.
Whereas we wanted to criminalize Cher and Vicki’s characters for their bad behavior, today’s fans find SZA’s motives totally relatable.
“Kill Bill” isn’t the only one where SZA is so blunt in her delivery.
On the latest album alone, you’ll find edgy lyrics like “I’m fuckin’, I ain’t making love no more,” in the song “Low,” where the singer angrily vents her frustrations about past bad relationships. We’ve all had those, but you’d never hear Aretha, Dionne or Gladys expressing their (or our) feelings about them so explicitly in song.
Few singers have addressed self-hate so openly, which SZA does with authenticity on at least two tracks (“F2F” and “Nobody Gets Me”), the latter on which she sings “I only like myself when I’m with you”). On that tune, she also laments the fact that she and the song’s antagonist are arguing, but in terms that would have been reserved for the hardest of rappers just a few decades ago (“you were balls-deep, now we’re beefin’”).
Or take the hit track “Blind,” where SZA casually notes “my pussy precedes me” as a euphemism for how she’s stereotyped for either being a woman or being a sexually active one. With much softer language, such a message might be praised as feminist and progressive, easily fitting an early-‘70s liberation narrative. But it’s SZA’s lack of subtlety that resonates with her fans. Why beat around the bush (no pun intended!) when you can get right to the point?
SZA does that more often than not on SOS while singing over a variety of beats and largely detuned melodies that give her songs an ethereal sound. It’s that sonic detuning that comprises most of her chord progressions, with the songs’ note patterns developed more by the singer’s heady tenor voice than the accompanying instrumentation.
Even still, with SZA it’s less about vocal tone and more about intonation. She avails herself of today’s technology which takes her voice to different places as she sings (and sometimes raps) emotional and graphic tales of various, mostly toxic relationships.
It’s not so much how SZA is singing her lyrics but what those lyrics are saying and how they connect with her fans. It’s also about creating buzz, which the “Seek & Destroy” singer does to great effect. It’s notable that her current No. 2 song “Kill Bill” has only been held out of the top spot by two songs (Taylor’s “Antihero” and Miley’s “Flowers”) that are equally or more buzzy and deeply personal in nature, clearly the formula for success in the current era.
It’s no longer required that a soul singer deliver songs with shout-to-the-rafters, church-honed, powerhouse vocals, like Aretha, Chaka or Whitney from a long-ago era, or that she engage in the kind of melisma and acrobatics popularized by Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and later Christina Aguilera at the turn of the century.
And if you’re pining for more innocent days when, for example, Patti LaBelle’s most famous breakup song, “On My Own” (with Michael McDonald), sweetly asked “why did it end this way?” as opposed to SZA’s version of heartbreak after a relationship ends on the song “I Hate U” (“I be so bored with myself, can you come and fuck me?”), don’t hold your breath.
Clearly the sweet, innocent love song approach of the 1980s doesn’t pay the bills in 2023. It’s brashness that matters today. SZA is giving that to her fans in spades. And it’s paying off on the charts.
It’s a different game today. Artists have to connect on a deeply personal level with a generation that grew up navigating social media, digital technology and, most recently, a world-shifting pandemic. Fail to do that, and you’re just another singer trying to get a hit.
Or as one YouTube commenter put it on SZA’s channel following the release of the “Kill Bill” video: “it’s not just music, SZA is a lifestyle.”
It may be a lifestyle, but SZA is definitely killing it.
Generation X member DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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2 thoughts on “<strong>My generation ‘doesn’t get’ superstar SZA, (pronounced SIZ-zuh), but she’s smashing records and redefining R&B (and we should pay attention)</strong>”
EXCELLENT Breakdown as always Sir, this is a piece of real rigor and heft that helps me understand my misgivings about her music. For me, it’s the lack of rhythmic heft and push in the music of SZA and HER that disorients me as a Black music lover. Almost as if the approaches of Minnie Riperton and Roberta Flack, who I love, are more dominant than the old barn burning style. But to oppose it would be like trying to hold back rain with my hands, so thank you for translating it for us!
Thank you, SIR, for reading it and commenting. For years I’ve been pining for the return of R&B and storytelling as we knew it, but those days are long gone…perhaps never to return. Thanks for your undying support!