Top Dawg Entertainment’s SZA is probably the Manny Pacquiao of signing autographs. Early Monday evening, she began her meet-and-greet event at the Generation Hustle shop on Melrose with overflowing enthusiasm and, at the event’s end, there were no signs of carpal tunnel in her left hand after penning close to 500 autographs. In fact, she looked like she could easily go for another 500 pictures, autographs, and small talk.
Best of all, she didn’t take any adoring fan for granted. Each person that teared up, or said “I love you” or “You mean so much to me,” was met with an equally gratifying response of “I love you too” or “You mean so much to me too,” from SZA. Not one person appeared to walk away without feeling that their idol was one of them.
And once the exhausting event was over, with the same amount of zeal, she happily sat down with me to chat. Over about twenty minutes, we chopped it up about her Ivy League experience, making perfect smoothies, home brewing, and of course, her EP, Z. After we wrapped up, it was clear to me why TDE took such interest in an unproven well of talent like herself: her approach to crafting records is so original, so unique, and so genuine to her and her values.
And isn’t that what great music is all about?
TSS: First of all, I really love you reciprocate every fan’s adoration for you. I felt like you were as excited to see each and every one of them as they were to see you.
SZA: Aw, thank you. I was.
TSS: It was really cool, I’ve never seen an artist do that before. But let’s get to it. Your album is finally out. How do you feel?
SZA: I don’t know. I’m excited but it’s nerve wracking, it’s terrifying. You never know who would think of you, or if they really support you. It’s creepy sometimes, you never know.
TSS: I’d say the line around the block should take care of that one.
SZA: I’m super excited.
TSS: It’s a great accomplishment, not too many people have the opportunity to put an album the way you have.
SZA: Thank you, thank you.
TSS: Let’s start with your childhood. Any talents as a kid, any musical inclinations?
SZA: Nope, I was a dancer. A dancer and a gymnast, for thirteen years. I didn’t start singing until two years ago.
TSS: Oh wow, that’s a quick turnaround.
SZA: Random, very random.
SZA: I played the saxophone in high school, but now I’m done.
TSS: Safe to say you’re a Wu-Tang fan?
SZA: Hell yeah. My only access to contemporary music was through my sister. By dad didn’t allow me to listen to anything secular or anything like that. My sister was very rebellious, so she did a lot of Cash Money, lot of Biggie, a LOT of ‘Pac, and a lot of Wu-Tang.
TSS: And that’s where you go the name SZA from?
TSS: [Laughs] Wasn’t too hard to make the connection.
SZA: [Laughs] Everyone called me Sosa.
TSS: When you first started singing, who’s voice or style did you try emulate?
SZA: I didn’t. I didn’t have anybody to model myself after. I didn’t get the chance to model myself after anybody. I’ve always respected Bjork, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Satchmode, Lauryn Hill. But more so for what they stood for, than their actual voices. They said so much more by being who they were. Like Lauryn Hill never selling out and just being down to earth.
TSS: What do you think your music stands for? What would you say your message is?
SZA: I have no idea. I have no idea what my music stands for, but I keep trying to tell my stories. And tell myself the truth through music. And then other people tend to catch on and agree with my truth, and it turns out that we’re all really similar. Because I can’t tell myself the truth when I’m not singing, for some reason. I lie to myself all day. For some reason in music, my subconscious talks to me.
TSS: Tell me about college. What was your experience like?
SZA: I went to an Ivy League institution. I was doing music on the side, I had to fail out of school for my parents to really understand…they were pissed. So pissed. So disappointed. Then, I went back to school out of guilt for one semester. I took a loan out on my name, which is why I owe like $30,000 in student loans because I left again.
TSS: [Laughs] Sallie Mae…
SZA: That bitch does not play. Like it’s fucked up. When I get signed to a major, I just wanted to pay off my student loans first. It’s like hanging over my head.
TSS: I feel it. I started college on the engineering track and after my first quarter of school I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do. But it took me two years to switch majors, and I never was actually able to own it and tell my parents. They found out when they saw me planning my next year out. Not the best way to find out [Laughs].
SZA: See mine was more bizarre. I was all A’s and B’s and then I failed. It was so fucked up [Laughs].
TSS: That’s crazy.
SZA: I would always go to the city on the weekends and kind of like be in the mix. I wanted to be in marketing. I got some really cool fashion marketing jobs, but music was a total accident. My boyfriend’s best friend was singing and rapping and he wanted me to get on a track and I was like ‘For what?’ and I just ended up singing something random and it didn’t sound so bad. I just fell into it. Everyone was like ‘You should really do this!’ and I was like ‘I don’t think it’s for me.’ And even still I’m like I could still back out of this any day. But I feel like now, I’m getting too deep.
TSS: [Laughs] It’s too late now. You’re verified on Twitter.
SZA: That means nothing. I was verified on Twitter before I was signed. I have no idea how it happened. They damned me. It’s like a creepy society. They were like ‘Follow these steps because we’d like to verify you.’ I was weird, so weird. [Laughs]
TSS: [Laughs] Big brother’s watching.
SZA: I know. Jesus.
TSS: What would you say would be your proudest accomplishment?
SZA: Touching other people’s hearts. That girl who cried earlier. That might be it.
TSS: Just now?
SZA: Hell yeah. That was crazy. I’m an emotional person. I’m surprised I didn’t cry, too. I get like that sometimes. I spend all day wondering whether people really fuck with me or not.
TSS: I think you got your answer.
SZA: Yeah, that was crazy. That really touched me. That was nuts.
TSS: Are you a book reader at all?
SZA: They put me to sleep. The only books I read are health related. I read The China Study and then I found out that was a sham. I read Emily Dickinson’s whole catalog. I love poetry. I read it in middle school. It’s big burgundy book with all her poems in it. I lost the front cover and it only says ‘Emily Dickinson’ on the side, so I never even knew what it was called. I read the whole thing randomly over the summer. The only book I ever really card about was Falling Up by Shel Silverstein.
TSS: Where the Sidewalk Ends. That pretty much sums up my childhood.
SZA: He’s a god. He’s amazing.
TSS: You have a beer-themed album cover. Are you a beer drinker?
SZA: I am a brewery lover. I’m not a beer drinker, but I’m a golf course keg party aficionado.
TSS: Have you brewed your beer?
SZA: I’ve tried.
TSS: Oh nice! Me too.
SZA: I did well! How’d yours turn out?
TSS: I used to do it with a couple of my friends when I lived in The Bay, and-
SZA: You guys waited the whole month?
TSS: Yeah yeah, we made like five gallons worth the first time.
TSS: So we couldn’t drink that all before it finished fermenting. Rather, we didn’t drink it all before. I’m sure we could have [Laughs].
SZA: I was about to say, you definitely could have [Laughs].
TSS: But yeah, once I moved down to LA, I tried it once by myself, and it turned out okay. A little too much yeast I think. Made it too creamy.
SZA: Oh, I love that though. I prefer that. Have you ever had orange creamsicle beer shakes?
TSS: Nah, I haven’t.
SZA: You take some Blue Moon and orange sherbert and then a little bit of vanilla ice cream.
TSS: [Laughs] I just make smoothies every morning.
SZA: I’m a smoothie queen. I’m actually allergic to gluten, so I don’t drink beer anymore. Which is why I just manifest it on my covers.
TSS: They have gluten-free beer.
SZA: Yeah but that’s wack. The cider beers are trash [Laughs]. So I’m over that.
TSS: You’re a smoothie person, you said?
SZA: Every morning.
TSS: Do you have a Vitamix?
SZA: No, I don’t have a Vitamix because that shit is a sham.
TSS: Oh come on! That shit can blend a rock.
SZA: I don’t need to blend a rock. I just need to blend a little bit. And if anything can blend a rock, I don’t need that. That’s terrifying. I just do a little bit of acai, a little guarana, and some blueberries, strawberries, bananas, some kale, spinach, coconut milk and I’m out.
TSS: Same thing every day? You never mix it up?
SZA: Nope. It’s the only thing that keeps me awake all day. It’s the guarana I think. I tried this Herbalife tea thing and it had me up for two days. I’m never doing it again. It was nuts. Like I was jittery. I had to call Punch and tell him “Something’s wrong with me.” It was crazy, I just came down from it yesterday. I was a jittery freak for two days.
TSS: What do you think drew you to TDE? Before your signing, it was generally more of a collective of hardcore rappers. Where did you see yourself fitting in at the time, and how has that changed since?
SZA: I never saw myself fitting in. I remember the day that Punch (Top Dawg Entertainment president) was like “I think I want to introduce you to everybody.” And I was like “Are you sure? I don’t know.”
I don’t know, I worry every day, I just want to make them proud and do the right thing. I don’t want to half-ass them. I really want to prove my worth. I’m not sure that I fit in for sure, but I want to prove myself. I’m trying.
TSS: Who critiques your music the most?
TSS: Rather, what outside person critiques and kind of guides your music the most?
TSS: That seems to be the popular answer around all the TDE artists.
TSS: Yeah, I’ve asked that question to everybody and they’ve all given the same answer.
SZA: Punch’s the most introspective. And he’s very lyric-driven, so he breaks down everything. It’s weird, and he’s very learned in music, so he knows tones, melodies and everything. He’s say “I love this for this reason” and sometimes he’ll like things that I don’t like.
Like I didn’t like “HiiJack” but I love Chaz [Ed. note: Chazwick Bundick is Toro Y Moi’s birth name] and I was like “I should record something better because I love this beat” and then he was like ‘It’s fine, just leave it the way it is and put it out there.’ And now it’s a lot of people’s favorite song off the project.
TSS: How do you think the project would’ve been different without Punch’s input?
SZA: He engineered 80% of it. So it probably wouldn’t even have been recorded. I’m on the shyer side of things. I’m intimidated by a lot of the other guys.
TSS: [Laughs] I can see why.
SZA: [Laughs] Definitely Top. And Dave is super intimidating. [Ed. note: Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith and Dave Free, TDE CEO and president, respectively]
TSS: Even now?
SZA: Yeah, for sure. If I call him too, much I feel weird. So Punch was just the easiest to talk to. He (Top Dawg) calls every once in awhile to make sure that I’m okay, which breaks the walls down a little bit.
TSS: Do you live out here in LA?
SZA: No, I live in New York. I’m here occasionally. I’m trying to make the move though.
TSS: There’s no winter over here.
SZA: Which is what I love. I hate the cold. I become quiet, even quieter. And then mean. I become angry and mean. I just find reasons to sleep all day.
TSS: [Laughs] It rained over here like a month ago and the whole city shut down. I didn’t get mail for two days. Nobody out here knows how to deal with anything except sunlight.
SZA: What?!? I’ve never seen it rain here yet. For some reason I always come when it’s a dry spell. It never rains. You guys don’t even have coats, huh?
TSS: I have a single peacoat that I never wear. It’s annoying because I love wearing jackets but I rarely ever have the opportunity out here.
SZA: What? Nah, New York is like real down goose weather. And I love snow. I love to sled. So I need to be around snow at some point.
TSS: You can drive up to Big Bear if you want snow.
SZA: Even in the summer?
TSS: Definitely not in the summer, though. Alright, back to the music. I know you’re really hands on with your music, and your visuals too. You direct your own music videos. What’s the significance of all the nature in your videos?
SZA: I’m super particular about everything. I grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey and my mom took me to the arboretum every weekend. So, that was my playtime, my leisure. So for me I associate nature with being relaxed and being calm. At my happiest point, I’m always involving nature.
TSS: How’d you come up with the term “glitter trap” to describe your music?
SZA: Oh my god! I can’t believe n****s ran with that. That is crazy. It was 6 AM, I had just finished three-quarters of S the night before I dropped it. So I left the studio session, he didn’t even mix the songs. We were uploading them to SoundCloud and Jolie, my manager at the time, was asking “What do you want to label this as?” and I was so grumpy that night. I was like “What are you talking about.” And she said “It has to come up as something on iTunes. RnB?” I said “No, I hate that.”
And then I was listening to the last song I recorded off the project, which was “Wings” and I was just like ‘That shit sounds like glitter trap. It’s feminine, but it’s hard. Like metal, or some other shit.’
So I just stuck with glitter trap and we put the whole thing under that name. This time was going to alternative country. But I was just sleepy and I thought it would be ridiculous and no one would even catch it. And now it’s “GLITTER TRAP PRINCESS.” [Laughs] 6 AM decisions. They change your life. That’s really fucked up.
TSS: What’s your ideal studio session like? Walk me through your creative process.
SZA: I love being alone. I don’t like to have a lot of stuff in the studio. I can’t do anything when I record. I can’t eat, I can’t drink. Not even water. I just like to get it done. If it’s not done, I can’t focus.
[Top Dawg president "Punch" enters the room.]
SZA: [Points at Punch] He’s usually there. For the longest time I was afraid to record in front of Punch. It was so funny.
TSS: Punch, you scaring people man.
SZA: It’s the eyebrows. Everyone laughs when I say the eyebrows because they know its true. I swear.
Punch: You slandering me, huh. Yo, there’s a rap battle going on outside. It’s crazy.
SZA: First of all he’s a terrible person. He’ll really let n****s go on for hours. He did this in Times Square once. Yeah, it was crazy. Everyone was crowding around. We was on our way to dinner and some guy was like “Punch! From TDE. Let me rap for you.” And he was like “Let me see what you got.” Rapped for twenty minutes on our way to dinner. Crowd drew and everything. It was crazy. It was very funny. He was good though. I feel like Punch listens to everything.
TSS: Safe to say you’re your own harshest critic?
SZA: Yes. When we pulled up, Punch is like “All those people are here for you.” I was like “No they not, they think the other boys are coming. That’s why they here.” I always talk myself down, all the time.
TSS: How have you dealt with rising expectations?
SZA: It’s crazy. My expectations have always been scary high. Sometimes I feel like I don’t do too well. I overthink a lot. I’m learning how to the play the mellotron and the electric bass because I feel like I don’t really count as a real musician. I just stress myself all day. I don’t handle them well…yet. I’m learning to handle them better. I just always want to be better better better better. I’m just never good enough for myself.