‘Let me tell you a secret: I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy’: SZA’s raw honesty conquers pop

The singer’s second album is the best of the year, according to ‘The New York Times’ and ‘Rolling Stone’; she has more Grammy nominations than Taylor Swift and connects with a wide audience thanks to her brazen, feminine lyrics

SZA performing in Los Angeles
SZA performing in Los Angeles in October 2019.Phillip Faraone (Getty Images for REVOLT)
Carlos Marcos

Her father, a Muslim, forced her to wear a hijab to school. It wasn’t exactly the most exciting garment for a pre-teen girl who was opening her eyes to life, but there were other Muslim classmates who also covered their heads with a veil at her school in Maplewood, a small, white, Christian town in New Jersey. However, things got complicated in 2001 with the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. A wave of Islamophobia shook the country. She was 12 years old and had to endure bullying from both classmates and teachers during a time in which it was hard to be a Muslim in the United States. Since then, insecurity has been a constant in Solána Imani Rowe’s life — an insecurity that she has turned to her advantage by exposing it in the lyrics of defiantly vulnerable, feminine songs. If there is any competition to hurricane Taylor Swift in today’s pop, her name is SZA.

The New York Times ranked SOS, SZA’s second and most recent album, as the best of 2023. Although it was released in December 2022, it did not make that year’s list, as these selections actually cover from November to November. The review declares that “her melodies blur any difference between rapping and singing, in casually acrobatic phrases full of jazzy syncopations and startling leaps.” She also took the first place In Rolling Stone: “[SOS has dominated] the cultural conversation on a level no 2023 release could compare with […] SZA seamlessly contorts disparate genres around her raw emotion and gifted verbiage,” notes the magazine. Now, next February 4, SZA could top off a stratospheric season if she manages to confirm her status as favorite at the Grammys: she is the one with the most nominations (nine), above Olivia Rodrigo and Taylor Swift, both with six.

The singer performing in Toronto, Canada, on February 25, 2023.
The singer performing in Toronto, Canada, on February 25, 2023.Robert Okine (Getty Images)

The bluntly honest stories that SZA tells in her songs connect with a youth eager for real narratives that yank them out of the narcotically illusory world of social media. Through her lyrics, almost always autobiographical, the singer naturally exposes her conflicts. It is almost as if she were talking to a friend at 3:00 a.m., huddled in a doorway, as the words make their way through a haze of pot smoke and booze. “I might kill my ex, not the best idea / His new girlfriend’s next, how’d I get here? / I might kill my ex, I still love him though / Rather be in jail than alone,” she sings in the disturbing, yet warm, Kill Bill; her biggest hit with 1.5 billion streams on Spotify. “Let me tell you a secret / I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy,” she sings in Supermodel. An often ruthless style, presented with a coating of tenderness.

SZA grew up in an environment of righteousness, with an orthodox Muslim father and a strict mother who did not let her eat sweets when she was little. Today, she says, amused, that her mother cannot listen to some of her songs, like the aforementioned Supermodel. On the other hand, her father was a fan of jazz and funk, and what she heard at home shaped her musical landscape: names like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, George Clinton, James Brown. On her own, she discovered Björk. “The one thing I’ve always admired is their ability to paint scenes with their sounds,” she has said about her musical influences.

The beginning of SZA’s career was not all smooth sailing. In 2012 she started making music and writing for other artists: among others, she co-wrote Feeling Myself (2014) for Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj and Consideration (2016) for Rihanna. A scout from Top Dawg Entertainment, Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q’s record label, recognized her talent and signed her. Then the singer recorded her debut album, Ctrl, ready for a 2015 release, but the company decided to delay it for strategic reasons. After two years of discussions, in 2017, she announced that she was done with the whole business in a tweet that she later deleted. However, the message was effective, and the company released the album that same year. It was a hit.

SZA in May 2021, during the Billboard Awards, in Los Angeles.
SZA in May 2021, during the Billboard Awards, in Los Angeles.Christopher Polk/NBC (NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

It took SZA five years to release her second album, the extensive and highly praised SOS, with 23 songs featuring artists like Travis Scott, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Phoebe Bridges. While Ctrl captivated the critics and a select audience, with SOS she reached a broader audience thanks to her ability to wrap her dramatic messages in a commercial sound. The album includes hip hop, soul, pop, ballads and more. Some pieces of songs were posted on TikTok, and her followers named them. This is the case of Shirt. Taylor Swift would never dare to explore the depths she is reaching, narratively speaking. Although they both sing about relationships, SZA does it from uncomfortable points of view: sex, obscenity, betrayal, resentment, arrogance, authority, submission, pride. Many of her songs are bad bitch anthems that convey a helpless fragility: one moment she claims that she will kill her ex, and the next she is talking about the long journey she had to go through to feel beautiful.

SZA and Taylor Swift last February in Los Angeles, during the 2023 Grammy Awards.
SZA and Taylor Swift last February in Los Angeles, during the 2023 Grammy Awards. John Shearer (Getty Images for The Recording A)

In 2019, the singer was at the center of an incident that confirms her great popularity, the power of a well-placed tweet and the long road that still lies ahead in the United States regarding racial issues. First, SZA reported on Twitter how an employee of a cosmetics store in Calabasas, California, called security personnel to search her because she thought she was shoplifting. The singer wrote: “Lmao Sandy Sephora location 614 Calabasas called security to make sure I wasn’t stealing. We had a long talk. U have a blessed day Sandy.” Then, the store, part of the popular Sephora chain, closed all its locations in the United States (about 400) for a day, which it used to give its employees a course on diversity.

In a 2023 interview for Rolling Stone magazine, the writer talks about how SZA is so warm with her followers that it often borders on the reckless. Not only does she talk to them; she also invites some of them to share a cigarette backstage, or even to a party at her house. The singer’s explanation? “I know what it’s like to feel small or like somebody doesn’t care, because that’s who I was my whole life. In middle school, elementary school, I wasn’t popular. So I try to make sure n***as know: ‘I hear you, I see you.’” It is quite mutual: the world of pop cannot take its eyes away from her, nor can it stop listening to her songs.

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