SZA’s Hidden Gem: Z

todayOctober 17, 2023 51 4

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By Nayeli Esquilin 

Music Journalist

As she’s become a household name, few realize how SZA broke through the alternative R&B scene.

It goes without saying that CTRL was one of the best records of 2017 and that the recently released SOS is making just as big waves, but a lot of her projects before CTRL’s release 

are often overlooked. More specifically Z, her third EP released on April 8, 2014, is one of the most underrated albums among fans in her repertoire. The main themes within SZA’s work are self-reflection, building self-confidence and navigating the world as a young black woman. She takes these themes on an exploration in Z, with whimsical storytelling, cinematic imagery and revolutionary sounds in terms of R&B at the time.

The first woman to sign with Top Dawg Entertainment in August of 2013, SZA had the opportunity to work with a plethora of producers and rappers. Mac Miller, Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Toro Y Moi and Isaiah Rashad all had a hand in creating this album. The 10-track EP takes listeners on a musical journey with SZA’s versatile vocals.

From the jump, Z feels like an auditory expedition through SZA’s version of Wonderland, with each track having its own story. No two songs are the same, but this diverse track list creates a beautiful blend of hip-hop, R&B and alternative sound. The record uses lo-fi beats mixed with light synths and SZA’s passionate yet hypnotic singing.

The album starts off slowly with “Ur”, produced by Mac Miller. SZA’s voice fades in and out as if she is a form of conscience. She tells this story from two perspectives, assumed woman v. man, as she sings, “Freedom ain’t real, who sold you that lie? I ain’t buyin’ it, no matter what the price”.  Questioning if she is subconsciously lying to herself about personal freedom, is she doing what she wants or what her romantic partner/society wants from her? She backtracks by saying she must be dumb enough to lie to herself. Mac’s complex production of this song brings a sensual atmosphere to the start of the album. The next song, “Child’s Play”, references SZA’s need to live in her nostalgia, with references to Barbie and Nintendo. Chance The Rapper joins this track, listing off the things he’s done with his fame but in the end, just like SZA, he longs for a time before all the notoriety. 

The third track, “Julia”, stands out from the rest of the album. Named after actress Julia Roberts, SZA details taking risks for love in this energetic pop ballad. But sometimes that risk doesn’t come with a reward. 

Isaiah Rashad features in the next song, “Warm Winds.” Which sonically starts off high to ends low, just like a romantic relationship. A two-in-one track about how ending a relationship can expose the reality of how things were and how the aftermath is just as difficult as staying in a loveless relationship. “HiiiJack, a play on another TDE project, follows “Warm Winds.” 

Produced by Toro y Moi, “HiiiJack” details SZA’s struggle with letting go of an old beau and shifting to a new infatuation. She’s willing to use anything, whether it’s daydreaming or drugs, to move on and find Mr. Right.

One thing SZA loves to do is reference Hollywood in her music. The next track “Green Mile” is inspired by the movie of the same name and is an auditory cinematic listen. In SZA’s rendition, she details, metaphorically, taking a gunshot to the back, seeing a massacre, and how she murdered a young boy. This song is an anecdotal tale of love and betrayal. 

Following is “Babylon.” SZA’s airy vocals mix with Kendrick Lamar’s scornful verse and the mystical instrumentals produced by DJ Dahi. While SZA references Christ in her agony over the tumultuous relationship, Kendrick spits fire over those who have gone against him, whether professionally or personally.

The next track, “Sweet November”, is an introspective look at SZA’s life up until this point. The instrumentals of this song are an ode to psychedelic soul lovers with a sample of Marvin Gaye’s Mandota. With Gaye’s original work in the mix of SZA’s whispered vocals and messages of the complications of love and maturing into the person she is today; this makes for a smooth sensual vibe.

SZA closes the album with “Omega”. She’s finally ready to let go and head into her future life without any fear of the unknown. She calls on a higher power to free her of her troubles and allow her to start fresh. SZA ends the album with the final lyrics, “It’s the beginning” four times. Though this journey is over, it doesn’t mean her story is over.

Her emotions are completely exposed throughout this album, leaving you with a completely different outlook on her skill as a musician pre-CTRL. Within 40 minutes you are falling down a rabbit hole and trying to make your way back up again with SZA. 

Written by: Danielle De Lucia

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