Editor's Note: This story first appeared in its original format in the new issue of Variance. Click here for the full version.
Photo by SSENSE
Solana Rowe (aka SZA) is the newest and currently only female addition to Top Dawg Entertainment, joining the company of Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and others. The 24-year-old neo-soul songstress is also the first traditional singer to be fronted by the label, which has made a name for itself with a roster of rappers.
Needless to say, the recent release of her debut album, Z, is a new venture for Rowe as well as TDE. In fact, she admits the significance can be a bit overwhelming after releasing two EPs. “I guess the term ‘album’ freaks me out,” she confesses days before the new project’s arrival. “It's really like a long-ass EP; it's 65 minutes, 10 songs. It's definitely an LP. I worked like a year on this, it's definitely an album.”
This time around, the collection is accompanied by some big names, a sign of the singer’s rapid ascent. With a little help from her friends Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Mac Miller, Toro Y Moi and others, it’s clear things are moving quickly for the former cosmetics saleswoman at Sephora.
“If it were up to me, I would wait forever and I – would really like to just wait forever,” she admits with a laugh. “Just until I had things exactly the way I wanted them. They told me, 'You have to stop recording and release it.'”
Rowe can’t ignore the fact that her style is new to the label. And she admits that they’ve handled her talents in a different way than recent projects from Lamar or ScHoolboy Q.
“There's definitely way more conversation,” she confesses. “This is the first time for all of us. So this is their first time to release anything that isn't really rap, so everybody's a little nervous. And I think everybody is just trying to make sure this is done right so that we make the mark we want to make [and] we can be proud of ourselves.”
Being a young woman in music can be daunting with comparisons to peers sometimes applied more freely than with men. But Rowe is hoping Z will be the statement that distinguishes her from the crowd.
“I think for a long time it was easier to box me into a group of other women,” she says. “Or just a sound in general because it was like, 'Oh, this is what they're doing' or 'This is what's new, blah, blah, blah.’ There's something different about this project and there's something I think will separate me from the pack a little bit.”
Reaching new heights of her career has been as personally enriching as it has professionally, according to Rowe, pointing to her appreciation for the growing camaraderie between her and her TDE family. And recent appearances at SXSW only further strengthened that bond, most notably with Schoolboy Q. “He's the most jokey-joke of the group,” she says.
“Everybody's a serious jokester, and Q takes it really far but it's awesome. I made mac and cheese for them at South By, just played around. And they cursed me out,” she recalls while laughing. “We all just have like a legit good time. We are definitely family, but that takes legitimate time. It's one thing to say that it's a family, but you have to have somebody curse you out or you have to get into an argument to be able to say that you're closer to somebody. And I've definitely had my share of being ragged on and joked on. Before one interview [at SXSW], Q talked about my vagina for like 10 minutes It was so crazy, but it's just funny.”
SXSW was undoubtedly a new kind of experience this year, with fans scaling fences to watch her perform when just last year she was the one sneaking into shows at the Austin festival to see her favorites perform. And while it’s name appearing on the bill these days, Rowe admits she’s very much a fan of music first, with an eclectic playlist that includes Mumford and Sons, Beiruit, Little Dragon and Jamiroquai, among others.
“I've [also] been spending a lot of time with Thundercat,” she says. “With people that play instruments. I used to play the saxaphone [but] I've been hanging around legit musicians, like people who play bass, electric guitar, chord organ.”
One such musician is her recent collaborator Mac Miller, who “plays like four separate instruments—and well. It'll be like a whole jam session at his house with me, him and Thundercat. And we just make really fly music and it's just very inspiring. You want to just let go because you're no longer in the constraints of just singing to a beat. I don't play an instrument, so now i'm pressured to make my voice more of an instrument, to let go and be free.”
While many artists might take a break from writing to enjoy the release of an important debut, Rowe has instead been flexing her muscles. Those intimate jam sessions have opened her up to a new array of sounds which fans can surely expect to experience with her soon.
“It's funny, the stuff I've been recording now, post-album—it's even more over the top, it's edgier.”
SZA’s debut record, Z, is now available via Top Dawg Entertainment.