Music to turn down to: SZA’s melancholy new EP

Music+to+turn+down+to%3A+SZAs+melancholy+new+EP

By John Lavanga / A&E Editor

SZA

Z

Grade: A

Sounds like: Nina Simone for the Twitter Age

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About two months ago, Schoolboy Q released his well-received Oxymoron on Top Dawg Entertainment label. With it, Top Dawg Entertainment  — which includes big names such as Q, Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock — cemented its place on the frontlines of West Coast hip-hop. Last week, however, Top Dawg Entertainment released a record that falls a little bit out of sync with the label’s established image: 24-year-old East Coast R&B singer SZA’s new EP Z.

A slow, contemplative collection of brilliant R&B tracks, the EP is simultaneously nothing like anything the label has put out before and one of their best releases to date.

The EP isn’t packed full of big-name features, although checking the list of producers on the EP gives readers names as disparate and established as Mac Miller and Toro y Moi. Instead, SZA runs the show with a mix of her alternately soulful, saccharine and ethereal vocals and the judicious use of tracks whose influences run the gamut.

Some tracks, such as the album’s decidedly minimalist and hypnotic opener, “UR,” settle nicely into the modern alternative R&B canon alongside Jhene Aiko and Frank Ocean, while others employ ‘80s-styled synth beats as effectively as Toronto band Austra, and still others bare more soulful roots. Yet no matter what sort of style she chooses to adorn her impressive voice, it’s SZA’s beautiful, arresting openness that makes each track worth hearing. Bring it all together, and Z is the rare album that makes you stop and stare at the speakers, unsure of whether you want to call up that old flame, or just stare at a picture of her and cry.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the EP’s second track, “Childs Play,” where a feature from Chance The Rapper — last year’s biggest breakout artist — only heightens the emotion. Over a stripped-down track that puts reality in slow motion, SZA sings about childhood memories and unrequited love so poignantly that you feel like you’re right there with her as she rips the heads off of her Barbie dolls with the detached misery of a lonely little girl.

When Chance The Rapper takes over the song, chiming in before SZA is through singing, it’s a gorgeous confession in an empty hotel room. He cracks one-liners and prattles on brilliantly: “I only write rhythm to the tardiest of tempos/ Only ride shotgun when the car is a limo.” But there’s a sense of ennui in his flow — the feeling that all of the success can’t quite fill the void.

Top Dawg Entertainment labelmate Kendrick Lamar puts on an equally impressive — and painfully heartfelt — showing on “Babylon,” but in both instances SZA’s presence controls the mood of the track. She’s giving these rappers the right space to express an emotional depth that doesn’t get to show through on their biggest hits.

The amount of hype and scrutiny that SZA — who up to this point has quietly released a small handful of EPs and told Billboard magazine that, as recently as last year, she was working the floor at a New York Sephora store — faced leading up to the release of Z was unquestionably a product of the “next big thing”-obsessed age of Internet stardom. But so is SZA. 

Z is a sleek, modern look at the same blues singers have been crooning about for generations, packaged in production that forces us to “turn down” and think for a moment. Though you won’t want to pair it with Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle” at your next basement bash, Z is what you should put on once everyone’s gone home and you realize that you’re alone, and still empty inside.