Posted April 7, 2014
Tags: SZA,

Top Dawg Entertainment is already known for boasting one of the hottest lineups of emerging hip-hop artists in the game. Now, the label is making its mark on R&B with Z, the first major-label EP from singer-songwriter SZA.

Her second project in total, following 2013's S EP, the set packs 10 tracks of brand new records from the 23-year-old artist born Solana Rowe. "Babylon" and "Childs Play," singles which both won widespread acclaim from our readers, are included on the tracklist.

Chi-Town phenom Chance The Rapper and labelmates Kendrick Lamar and Isaiah Rashad make guest appearance on the EP, which is produced by Dae One, DJ DAHI, Emile Hayne, Mac Miller and more.

Z EP Album Review

A few years ago, a girl with a free-flowing mound of hair by the name of Solana Rowe was passing out t-shirts to the members of hip-hop’s hottest crew, Top Dawg Entertainment at a Kendrick Lamar concert. As an employee of 10Deep, an urban clothing brand, it was her job to provide the crew with sponsored tees. Stars aligned, and her rough demo tracks reached the ears of TDE’s president, Punch. Not too long after, Solana, was proudly wearing a TDE sweatshirt as the label’s newest signee, SZA.

Growing up in Maplewood, New Jersey (the hometown of fellow songbird Lauryn Hill), with an orthodox Muslim father and a converted Muslim mother, SZA felt constrained by the hijab wearing, conservative ways of Islam, and found music to be her expressive outlet. She’s now TDE’s flower child, a floating 23-year-old free spirit searching for clarity and truth on her third project (and first as apart of the TDE team), Z.

Z is a mood piece, 10 homogenous tracks that breeze by and flow on a winning combination of sweet vocals, sweeter hooks, and the sweetest of melodies and instrumentals. The package has shades of Kid Cudi atmospherics and introspection (Cudi collaborator Emile contributes on three of the 10 tracks), Erykah Badu’s bohemian, organic vibes, and Frank Ocean’s vulnerability, all while still being unabashedly SZA.

This may be just her third project in only two or so years of recording music, but SZA already possesses the songwriting ability of a seasoned artist. Julia is an upbeat slice of '80s disco pop with the hookiest of hooks without sacrificing depth. Its lyrics deal with the darker side of an unidentified relationship. Warm Winds is split into two parts, and it’s in the Isaiah Rashad featured latter half that it really takes shape. It leans on a breezy beat and a lengthy chorus sung by the duo that will stick with you like the warmest memories of a past flame. SZA fills the space between the album’s numerous memorable hooks with emotional tales of heartbreak and personal failures.

SZA paints wide strokes with the pen, touching on broad subjects with little specificity but with a poet’s flair for imagery. The content ranges from personal introspection and self-doubt (U R, Babylon, Sweet November) to the good, the bad and the ugly of relationships (Childs Play, HiiiJack, Shattered Ring, Green Mile). Mirroring the orangutan and fruit images on the project’s cover art, her voice is at times aggressive and powerful, and at others sweet and timid. Her vocals fit somewhere in the smoky, jazz club lane of Amy Winehouse and Lorde. Her voice doesn’t overpower as an instrument on its own, but paired with the moody, deeply layered beats, compliments perfectly.

Not to take anything away from her hooks, verses, melodies or voice, but the album may benefit most from its consistently moody production. It’s a 40-minute blend of new school R&B, neo-soul, hip-hop and alternative styles. Emile Haynie’s three offerings (Green Mile, Shattered Ring, Omega) all include minimal beats underneath airy spacey synths and drum pitter pats. DJ Dahi produces on Babylon, which features a possessed Kendrick Lamar verse and an oozy, slowed down trap beat and a spooky vocal sample. Sweet November recycles the old Marvin Gaye song Mandota, and HiiJack features a Toro Y Moi sounding beat with its fast paced, rhythmic video game blips and beeps. Elsewhere, Mac Miller checks in for a song and a half and TDE's Dave Free blesses the project with his talents.

Underneath her TDE hoodie and baggy coveralls, SZA is still Solana Rowe, the hijab wearing girl with doubts and fears, ambitions and contradictions. Her latest work sees her grappling with the daddy issues and relationship issues that afflict most 23-year-old women. Only this one has a golden voice and a sharp quill (not to mention an all-star team of collaborators by her side). She’s a flower that is just beginning to bud, and it’s exciting to see how bright her colors shine once she’s in full bloom.

(Review by Alec Siegel.)

DJBooth Rating - 4 Spins

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Posted April 7, 2014
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