By Geoffrey Rowlands
SZA’s voice has been described as alternating between a smoky husk and a sky-high falsetto. It is a vocal style which is likened to that of Icelandic singer Bjork, one of SZA’s acknowledged music influences.
“I came across Bjork’s music by accident,” explained 26-year-old SZA, real name Solana Imani Rowe. “My mother had enrolled me in a gymnastics camp when I was a child. I heard Bjork and rap artists such as Jay-Z, Common, OutKast and Nas on an iPod that one of the other girls had taken to camp.
“Hearing this stuff changed my life. My parents were strict when it came to music. They limited me to Brazilian jazz, Lauryn Hill, Miles Davis and soul. Lauryn Hill lived on the next street to us in Maplewood, New Jersey. I used to see her all the time at the local Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop. She was this pretty voice and face that my father respected.”
Although hearing the iPod songs may have broadened her musical horizon, SZA (pronounced Sizza) had no thoughts of forging a career in the music business.
“I was really into the natural sciences. I collected National Geographic magazines and watched everything on Animal Planet. I majored in marine biology at college. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do but I figured I was going to be a scientist and travel the world doing some kind of work with animals.”
SZA was supposedly set for graduate school. As it transpired, she simply left college and did a string of random jobs.
“I got fired from all of them apart from my last job at the Sephora cosmetics store. I quit that one. Having the opportunity to quit before someone fired me felt really cool.”
By this time, she had self-released her debut EP, See SZA Run.
“My recording career came about by accident. I was with a friend when we took some beats from the Internet and I freestyled lyrics over them. My friend insisted it sounded good and we recorded the song. I then did another song, then another and came to realise the tracks were good enough to make something out of them.”
See SZA Run attracted enormous critical acclaim. Containing seven tracks, it was more like a mini-album than an EP. The number of songs allowed SZA’s range of styles to be revealed. Her music was described as everything from chillwave to cloud rap and ethereal R&B to witch house.
“I have so many different influences. Not just music stars such as Jamiroquai, Billie Holiday, Frank Ocean or Red Hot Chili Peppers but non-musical people such as gymnasts, ice skaters, painters and filmmakers.”
SZA’s move into music was not enthusiastically embraced by her parents. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, the family relocated to New Jersey after her father became an executive producer at CNN. Her mother also held an executive position at AT&T. Many of her early songs explored the lack of approval she received from her parents.
“I should have been a boy. My dad, with his militant state of mind, talked to me like I was a boy. I took things really hard. I was a crybaby. My mom always said I was too sensitive and I had to get over it.”
Her parents have gradually come to accept SZA’s career choice.
“I guess there are times when they feel like they don’t know who I am. They spent so much time being super conservative that a music artist was probably the last thing they expected me to be. I’m sure the success I’ve had has also helped them come to terms with what I do. They can also see I’m having a great time.”
SZA’s rise to fame has culminated in a number three spot on the Billboard 200 for her debut album, Ctrl. The LP also holds pole position on the Top R&B Albums chart.
Her progression was through a further two acclaimed EPs, S and Z, a record deal with Top Dawg Entertainment and now a major label contract with RCA.
“Top Dawg signed me after I’d self-released S. I had a friend to thank for hooking me up with the label. She gave Top Dawg co-president (Terrence) ‘Punch’ Henderson some of my early songs. He thought I had potential and kept in touch. I actually became the first female and first non-rapper to sign with them. The deal with RCA was done this past April and they’ve given my album fantastic promotion.”
The one aspect of her work for which SZA does not care is being regarded as a celebrity.
“I don’t much like being thought of as a public figure. Everyone thinks they know you and has an opinion about you. I’ve also been labelled as the next Lauryn Hill or the next Erykah Badu. I don’t want anything like that. I just want to speak to everyone through my music and be able to do what I want to do.”
UK Singles chart
This month sees the introduction of new rules for the UK singles chart which will limit artists to a maximum of three songs in the top 100.
The change was prompted by artists such as Drake, Stormzy, Kendrick Lamar, Chainsmokers, Little Mix, The Weeknd and, particularly, Ed Sheeran dominating the chart with album tracks rather than singles. Such situations became possible through the introduction of digital downloads and listening figures from streaming services being part of the sales calculation. Any album track can be downloaded and streamed.
There will also be a new streaming ratio for older tracks. The aim of this is to prevent songs from hanging around the lower end of the top 100 for many months, if not years.
The overall objective is to support new talent giving songs by lesser known artists the opportunity to climb the chart without being blocked by older tracks which have passed their peak.
While the changes are well-intentioned, the end result will be a distorted chart in terms of song sales and popularity. All 16 tracks from Ed Sheeran’s Divide album were listed in the UK top 20. Had the new rules been in place, 13 of the most popular songs in Britain would never have appeared in the charts.
Might it not have been better to leave things as they are but rename the singles chart as the Popular Songs chart. Then introduce a new chart which is made up exclusively of officially released singles. Ed Sheeran would still have had 16 entries in the top 20 of the Popular Songs chart but just two on the officially released singles chart.
Geri Horner may have called off the Spice Girls reunion concert because of the constraints of looking after her new baby. But she has found the time to write a new solo single, Angels in Chains, as a tribute to her late friend, George Michael.
The song was recorded with George’s ‘music family.’ It was produced by Chris Porter who suggested involving George’s music director, Chris Cameron, guitarist Phil Palmer and backing singers Shirley Lewis, Lucy Jules and Jay Henry.
The lyrics are particularly poignant making numerous references to George’s songs.
“I was nine months pregnant with my son Monty when I heard the news of George’s passing,” Geri explained. “My emotions were all over the place. I didn’t know what to do with my feelings so I put them into the song which became Angels in Chains.
“I felt blessed to work on the record with Chris Porter and the same team George had handpicked for his own projects. I am first and foremost a George Michael fan so to be in the same studio with these amazingly gifted artists who have put their stamp on so many of my favourite records was a real privilege for me.
“In the process, I found how healing making this record had been not only for me but also for everyone involved. This is our way of saying goodbye to our friend and music idol. I hope George’s fans enjoy the song as much as we have enjoyed making it.”
The Angels in Chains video is posted at www.youtube.com/watch?v=NmT2aSEayWQ
All proceeds will be donated to Childline, one of George’s favourite charities.
A full interview with Geri on the making of Angels in Chains can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpNIR3w-_1E
Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa will issue his latest album, Rolling Papers 2, later this year.
In the meantime, he has released not one but two four-track EPs, Pre-Rolleds and Bong Rips. Both products are available to hear online and download for free.
The former is at www.datpiff.com/Wiz-Khalifa-Pre-Rolleds-mixtape.847118.html while the latter can be found at www.datpiff.com/Wiz-Khalifa-Bong-Rips-EP-mixtape.850296.html
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