SZA, Variety’s Hitmaker of the Year, Unpacks ‘SOS,’ Her 9 Grammy Noms, and Says ‘F— You’ to Song Leakers

SZA is vigorously scrolling.

“I never have topics before I start a song,” she says about her creative process, late one August night, high in the hills of Malibu, while zipping through months of memos and voice notes on her phone. “I just let the beat tell me what to do, and then I start babbling and making words, and it starts to form itself. It’s like a puzzle. Sometimes I write down phrases, but I never go back to those — even though they’re always good-ass phrases!”

Her forefinger flies across her phone. “They go back years and years and years. It’s all music and random bounces and writing…

“Oh, shit!” she exclaims, suddenly pointing to the screen. “It’s ‘Kill Bill’!” — her song that just happens to be the No. 2 charting single of the year. “This is literally ‘Kill Bill,’ the day that I wrote it: July 13, 2022 … at 10:26 p.m.!”

To a degree rare even for a musician, SZA’s art is inseparable from the rest of her. Variety’s Hitmaker of the Year doesn’t play an instrument — those gloriously supple melodies and intense lyrics just burst out of her and into a microphone, usually the one on her phone. But they’re unique and sophisticated songs, with an effortless, instantly identifiable melodicism: When she jumps on someone else’s track (whether it’s Kendrick Lamar’s or Lorde’s or Doja Cat’s or Lizzo’s or Justin Timberlake’s or Drake’s or James Blake’s), or even when she’s written one for another artist (Rihanna’s “Consideration,” for instance), you know immediately that it’s her. Her voice preens and pouts and pirouettes like a gymnast, and her music is equally flexible and versatile: At her Madison Square Garden concert last March, she brought out two drastically different artists to duet with her — Cardi B and Phoebe Bridgers — within 10 minutes of each other.

It will come as little surprise to anyone who’s listened closely to her music that IRL, SZA — aka Solána Imani Rowe — is pretty much exactly the person who inhabits her songs. She’s warm, witty and charismatic, with a big smile, a big presence and a speaking voice that can be as honeyed as the one she pours lavishly into her music. She exudes SZA-ness at all times.

Also like her songs, she’s self-conscious but extremely unfiltered — she began one conversation by talking about her therapist, another about weed. She’s always showing the celebrated raw and human emotions that have made hit songs like “Kill Bill” (a fantasy about murdering her ex) and “Snooze” such chest-clutching singalongs at the concerts behind her sophomore album “SOS,” which, after five years in the making, is up for nine trophies at the 2024 Grammy Awards in February. Those songs, that album and those concerts have made her into one of today’s biggest stars.

Her Grammy-nominated 2017 debut, “Ctrl,” was a brand-defining blueprint for her multidimensional take on alt-pop-R&B — but “SOS” is something else. It’s not just an album that people like; it touches them, in a way similar to peak Lauryn Hill or OutKast, with songs that speak to and for and about her fans and their lives. In concert, at the moment when SZA hits the glorious “And if you wonder if I hate you/ Fuuuuuuck you!” lyric that climaxes “I Hate U,” thousands of middle fingers thrust into the air and the crowd roars — even the dudes, although a lot of them don’t realize the song is basically about them. It’s a rare generation-defining album.


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“She says things in her songs that you feel but don’t even dare say out loud,” one fan, 19-year-old Tanisha, said after a New York concert. “Like, I kinda fantasize about killing my ex-boyfriend a lotta times, but I’m not tryin’ to say it.”

SZA’s openness is rare for a famous person. She holds what she calls “A-Team” gatherings after concerts, inviting the front-section fans whom she’s been watching during the show backstage to hang out — “I’ve made friends, genuine friends, with a lot of my fans,” she says. She speaks honestly of her ADHD and mental health, and her conversation is free-associative, with lightning-fast shifts from one subject to another. For example, while deep into one topic during a second conversation in November, she searches her phone for a text from Bridgers, her friend and collaborator (and fellow multiple Grammy nominee), when suddenly an animalistic scream blares from the tiny speaker. “This is Phoebe’s reaction to the Grammy nominations!” SZA says, holding up a video of Bridgers smiling and roaring. The previous topic of conversation is long gone, and SZA is now deep into another.

Mason Poole for Variety

Yet there can also be flashes of the fiery, flinty vindictiveness in so many of her most-loved songs — the sadness, anger and incomprehension from when she’s been wronged, whether by an ex or by people who leak her unfinished music.

“When people leak my songs, they ruin them,” she says, dead serious. “Then it’s not mine anymore; it’s actually yours. It’s something unfinished that you decided was ready to be shared. And it’s like, ‘Fuck you. Now I’m not releasing it.’ Play your leak, but you’re not gonna bully me into dropping music. I’m now embarrassed by this less-than-correct version that you put out. You’ve sent me into a weird space creatively when you could have just waited for me, but you’re selfish.”

There’s mystique but little mystery because she puts it all out there, in her music, on social media and in conversation. She’s like a water lily — the roots go deep, but everything else is in full view on the surface.

“She’s an artist’s artist,” says her longtime manager, Terrence “Punch” Henderson, “so you kind of have to let her go and just build around whatever mood or vibe or zone she’s in.”

But if some songs are less about joy and more about conflict or sadness, it’s not a cry for help — it’s because they make a better story.

“I guess it’s because I get bored as fuck writing about anything that isn’t, like, super embarrassing,” she says. “And I feel like those things that I don’t want to say or acknowledge about myself are [songwriting] material — if it interests me to the point where it’s worth the risk.

“There’s mad aspects to my life,” she concludes. “But people don’t really know that, because all I sing about are the hidden aspects that I think are more interesting. Honestly, I could write about jet-skiing with my friends, but I don’t want to make a song about that, and I don’t want to hear a song about it either.”

Mason Poole for Variety

* * *

SZA has often said that the songs she really pours her soul into don’t become hits, the way the ones done quickly and offhandedly do. “Kill Bill” — which is nominated not only for Grammy song and record of the year but also for best R&B performance — is such a song.

“We played her a bunch of tracks in the studio, and she asked me to pull that beat back up,” recalls co-writer and co-producer Rob Bisel, who created the song’s musical backing with collaborator Carter Lang. “And she was just sitting there quietly on her phone in the back of the studio. I didn’t really know if she was writing or just scrolling through Instagram. But after 10 minutes of silence, she was like, ‘OK, I got this idea for this song. It might be a little too crazy, but let me know what you think.’

“And then she sang, ‘I just killed my ex…’ and the whole hook from that point on. Her lyric and melody was written from top to bottom in no more than an hour, right there on the spot. And the finished record is pretty much the vocals from the one or two takes we did that night. It just kind of fell out of the sky.”

“I hated it,” SZA says. But then, with a characteristically instant self-contradiction, she clarifies, “Well, I didn’t hate it. But I was like, ‘Can I say this? Is it silly?’ Rob was like, ‘You have to say it!’ So I sent it to my homegirl, and she was like, ‘I don’t know. I think you should maybe say something to clarify.’ I was really scared that people would harm each other, ’cause some people are fucking strange. But it was a joke.”

On the other hand, “‘Nobody Gets Me’ made me feel like I accomplished something,” she says of the tear-jerker that might be her most moving love song. “I’d never made a ballad before, and that was so genuine to my spirit. I was sad as fuck about my ex, and that’s just what came out. But ‘Kill Bill’ wasn’t a song that I cared so much about.”

After she performed the song at a pop-up concert in Brooklyn in September, she told the crowd, “I just want to say that I don’t intend for anyone to go to hell — no one should inspire or aspire to do that. And don’t kill your exes!”

But as the long gestation for “SOS” showed, overthinking can be a formidable foe. “Once you wait too long, it’s never going to be done,” she says, “because you’re gonna keep adding, editing, changing, and once it’s past a certain point, it’s ruined — there’s no way it can be what it was meant to be. When it was time to drop ‘SOS,’ I just wanted it out, I couldn’t wait another second — like, the thought of pushing it back a fucking week almost killed me.”

When told the album seemed to come out at exactly the right time, just when it was ripe, she smiles and runs with the metaphor.

“It was, I’ll admit that — maybe a little over-ripe!” she laughs. “It wasn’t quite moldy, but it did have some soft spots.”

Mason Poole for Variety

* * *

SZA’s backstory has been extensively documented: born in St. Louis to a Muslim father and a Christian mother; raised in the comfortable New York suburb of Maplewood, N.J. The journaling and poetry began at an early age. “I started when I was very little, like crazy small — probably before I was making sense,” she says. “Let’s ask my mom quick.” She calls Audrey, her mother, on speakerphone, who answers within a couple of rings despite the late hour.

“Hey, baby!”

“Hey, Mommy!”

“Oh, it’s so nice to hear your voice. Are you good?”

“I’m good. I’m doing an interview, and the gentleman asked me what age did I start journaling? I feel like I’ve been writing bizarre, poetic, creepy things since I was so little — like I literally was going through an existential crisis at, like, 6.”

“Yes,” her mom replies warmly. “Actually, I’ve saved some pages from your original elementary school. I thought they may come in handy for when you look back at yourself, like, ‘Dag, she was thinking this at that age?!’” They both laugh. “It’s a way to therapy,” Audrey says. “You were self-healing, actually.”

“Factual!” SZA replies. “In actual therapy, I would have danced around that chair for, like, four sessions. But if I just write in it my journal, it’s only, ‘I need to do better next time.’”

After some more chat they sign off with love. “She’s the most positive person in my life,” SZA says.

SZA attended Columbia High School in Maplewood, which boasts such alums as Zach Braff, Paul Auster, Roy Scheider and, most relevantly, Lauryn Hill. Her father loved jazz and experimental music; her mother, “church music” and R&B; her sister, melodic hip-hop. All of those influences fused in her music with the rock she was hearing at school.

“I am a child of Good Charlotte and Fall Out Boy and Blink-182 and Limp Bizkit,” she says. “That’s all my era of childhood, and I did grow up in the burbs, going to bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, getting a mix CD or two and being one of the, you know, select Black kids at my school and on my block,” she says.

She’s spoken often of being bullied and considered weird at school, and her rebellious phase found her dropping out of Delaware State University and mortifying her parents by working in a strip club before enrolling in New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Along the way, she began uploading the songs she’d been recording to SoundCloud.

She fast-forwards through those years in a freeform burst when talking about how they’re reflected in her first full-length album.

“‘Ctrl’ means something to people, but I made it for myself — to free myself,” she says. “I was desperate to get out of my life in every way, wondering if I might have enough money to eat and borrowing studio time and being compared to other artists that I feel don’t represent me. I was tired of people doubting and of me wondering, ‘Am I smart? Can I write? Can I do this?’

“I was desperate to be freed from the girl in high school,” she continues, shifting into a third-person perspective of her former self, “who felt like she wasn’t enough and failed out of college and let her parents down and never really had anywhere solid to live. Her boyfriend was eight years older and established, and his ex-girlfriends were lawyers and agents and went to fucking RISD and these amazing institutions, and I didn’t have shit to my name — nothing.”

She keeps rolling. “That’s where [the ‘Ctrl’ song] ‘20 Something’ came from, not having fucking anything but dreams and aspirations and delusions of grandeur. Shit was crazy and it made me feel crazy! I hated the strip club — I love what I learned there, but I hated how resentful and expendable it made me feel. That era of my life was just fucking crazy and I don’t want to go back there. So when people talk about ‘Why don’t you make [more] music like that,’ I’m not going back there. That’s not the space I want to be in. My music will never sound like that again, but I will make beautiful music and I will constantly change. And I’m glad ‘Ctrl’ means something to people, but what it meant to me was so different.”

The turning point came during her internship at 10.Deep streetwear, when she delivered some clothes to Henderson and Top Dawg Management for the company’s then-client Kendrick Lamar.

“She came to our hotel lobby with her friend. And as we were having a conversation, her friend was listening to something on some earbuds,” Henderson recalls. “I’m like, ‘What are you listening to?’ and her friend said, ‘This is her. You didn’t know she sings?’ ‘Nah,’ I said, ‘let me hear it.’ What jumped out instantly was her voice — it was so distinctive — and then the words. She approached singing as a rapper. Instantly, I’m like, ‘I know what to do with this.’ From that moment, we kept in contact.”

It was a couple of years before they began working together in earnest, but the creative friction of their collaboration — the two got into a high-profile spat over social media as the wait for “SOS” approached its fourth year — seems to be reflected in her art: To hear her tell it, the remarkable cohesion of the 68-minute-long “SOS,” as well as the vividly realized ocean and shipwreck themes of the tour’s eye-popping stage production, had significant input from him.

“I work off of feeling,” she says. “But Punch is more into telling a specific type of story, more linear and literal. The [‘SOS’ tour’s] boat idea took him to a different place than it took me, like he wanted messages in bottles and all types of shit. And I’m just like, ‘No, this isn’t [the Tom Hanks film] “Castaway”! This is a feeling — it’s an energy of being lost at sea.’ Anyway, we argued very much, so we ended with a cross between the two of us — partially the way I felt and then whatever smarty-arty shit he felt was best.”

Henderson, who is long accustomed to such comments, says, “She speaks from the heart and what’s in her heart in the moment, and that may change in 10 minutes. But it’s never a thing where we have to go back and say, ‘I don’t feel that way no more.’ There are only so many characters in a tweet, and people don’t have the full context of what’s going on.” She also has posted many affectionate and grateful comments about him, such as this one from 2021: “Punch is my manager (not a machine or a label) lol also been like my stage dad the last 10 yrs. be nice to him pls 🥺. he really fights for me.”

Mason Poole for Variety

* * *

The current chapter is far from over. The “SOS” tour sets sail for Latin America and Australia and New Zealand next year, and a deluxe edition of the album is supposedly coming “soon” but, as this article went to press, was still unscheduled. Called “Lana” — after her first tattoo, because she didn’t have enough money for the six letters of Solana, “So that became my nickname for no reason” — she’d originally said it would add 7 to 10 songs to the original album and be released during the fall. But as of mid-November, she was still working on it.

“It was gonna be [‘SOS’] outtakes and some new songs, but it’s become more than I expected,” she says. “It was gonna be really soft, because I had made all my screaming points, and I just wanted to glide and not think [too much] and get out of my own head — I was so happy to say some shit that didn’t mean a fucking thing.

“It’s definitely turning into its own album… and I guess I could drop a new album randomly, because no one’s actually expecting that from me right now,” she ponders. “But I can’t tell if now’s the time to be consistent, or carefree. On the one hand it’s like, ‘What would Beyonce do?,’ but I am also deeply inspired by people who do whatever the fuck they want, like Frank Ocean and Andre 3000. Some of my favorite songs were the ones that I dropped on SoundCloud [early in her career], because it was so stress free.”

Why not just surprise-drop it as an album called “Stress Free”?

“Because then I’d have to give you publishing [royalties]!,” she laughs. “Anyway, I never get these things done until like the day before the deadline.”

Finally, there’s the small matter of her nine Grammy nominations. SZA has been down this road before: “Ctrl” was nominated for five 2018 awards but was shut out (although she did win one in 2022 for “Kiss Me More,” her duet with Doja Cat). Many people expect her to win big in 2024, but she’s not going there.

“I’ve lost enough times to know that investing in this moment is not wise,” she says. “And not because it’s not important — I’m so happy for it — but because you have to place your importance on who you are as an artist and as a person. It’s my first time being this popular, and I saw a huge uptick in negativity at the exact same time.”

Putting down her phone, she concludes, “But I guess it’s good that I don’t feel too beloved, because maybe I’d believe it!”

Additional reporting by Steven J. Horowitz. Variety will have more from our interviews with SZA, and our Hitmakers event, in the coming days.

Hair: Devante Turnbull; Makeup: Deana Paley; Styling: Alejandra LaPilusa; Look 1 (Jumpsuit): Jumpsuit and earrings: Pucci; Sandals: Cult Gaia; Look 2 (Yellow coat): Coat and Shoes: Nina Ricci; Look 3 (Black lace look): Full look: Namilia 


From Variety US