Before tumbling off her Lamborghini tractor, SZA looks incredible. A strip-club veteran, she gives her leading man, Justin Bieber, something close to a lap dance, perched on this piece of lawn equipment as he drives it. Flanked by cameramen, she twists her torso and sings her latest hit single, “Snooze,” to him as she sits on the hood. In one take, she puts her hands on the hood and ass fully in the air, with no spotter or soft ground to catch her should she fall.
It’s early August in Pomona, California, and a cloudless sky hangs over the wide parking lot where the music video for “Snooze” is being filmed with a small army of production staff, glam professionals, management, and label reps. The video will be released just three weeks later and seen nearly 9 million times in its first week. Her spill off the Lambo tractor doesn’t make the cut.
Earlier, I asked SZA how she came up with the video concept. In it, her friend and producer Benny Blanco, actors Woody McClain and Young Mazino, and Bieber appear opposite her as failed flings. “I wanted to go through a bunch of different relationships because I’m going through a breakup also,” she explained. The lyric “In the drop top riding with you, I feel like Scarface” evokes a convertible, but video director Bradley J. Calder suggested they use a Lamborghini tractor instead, for surreal effect (Lamborghini started out making farm equipment before it ever made luxury cars). “Bradley’s good at making shit weird,” SZA says. SZA is into weird.
She and Bieber take the tractor for a test run, SZA straddling the body of it with her back to him, like riding the handlebars of a schoolyard crush’s bike. When it’s time to roll, she writhes smoothly, standing and crouching as Bieber drives them to nowhere.
“She’s really comfortable up there,” I remark, a little mystified from my vantage point of being a former daredevil turned scaredy-cat after losing my teenage cloak of invincibility. SZA never really lost hers. “See, she’s not afraid of this type of stuff. It’s fine,” says Deanna Paley, SZA’s makeup artist.
The crowd of crew and colleagues stand in silent admiration until she suddenly thuds to the pavement. Everyone gasps in unison. She had been defying gravity so convincingly that there was mild horror when the inevitable occurred. Luckily, her look included knee pads — less for safety than the aesthetic. She’s helped up and shakes it off with a laugh. She’s told she has an hour before she needs to prepare for the next scene. “An hour?” she says. “I’m about to start doing weird shit.”
When I watched SZA scale that tractor with no safety net, I saw who she might have been as a kid growing up in Maplewood, New Jersey, jumping fences, breaking rules, and going after what she wanted with reckless abandon. Her current status as one of the most successful and beloved pop stars on Earth directly correlates with her intrinsic bravery. It translates to her uncanny vulnerability in her art and as a famous person, trying to reach music’s highest heights with a million people below who might be just as giddy if she fell.
On her debut, 2017’s Ctrl, she waxed poetic and specific about being insecure, desperate, and vile, almost defining herself through her most unglamorous attributes. She was the other woman on “The Weekend,” she got with your homeboy behind your back on “Supermodel,” she was flat broke on “20 Something” — she knew she was terrible. She knew she was so many things. And she always imagined that she could be better. Her penchant for edgy confessionals with her curly-cue voice and deviations from standard R&B set her apart in a crowded field of young singers.
In the alternative R&B space being cultivated at the time (which her music would go on to define), her look set her apart, too. She was visibly and exclusively Black, weighed around 200 pounds, and wore slightly frumpy, baggy clothes. “When I first came out, it was just Jhene Aiko, Tinashe, [FKA] Twigs — everyone was, like, fair-skinned and skinny,” SZA told me on the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast in December. She says she was rejected by some audiences when she forayed into music as a college dropout, though she built a small following with songs and EPs online pre-Ctrl. People like me gravitated toward her then because her beauty felt so much more representative of we who thought ourselves regular. It complemented her lyrical relatability. Ctrl, released in June 2017, was SZA’s introduction to the masses and, according to Billboard, has been one of the 200 most popular albums in America every week since.
SZA’s stature grew much faster than her discography — though she wouldn’t release another album for more than five years, she remained booked, and busy. When her second LP, SOS, finally arrived in December of last year, it was a masterpiece and immediately celebrated as such. It’s groundbreaking from the first and titular track, where she raps publicly for the first time and immediately claims her surgically enhanced ass while doing so (it had been the subject of the digital rumor mill for quite some time). It all represented an evolution in her bravery from that of small-town fuck-it-ness — the kind that makes you stand on moving vehicles — to that of a constantly scrutinized celebrity who kept speaking her mind anyway.
On SOS, she didn’t re-create Ctrl, she went bigger and bolder with accounts of murder fantasies, the celebrity men in her iMessages, her self-hatred, and her ungratefulness. She bucked the R&B box she’s often placed in with rap songs, rock songs, and big pop ballads — but still sang the hell out of a Babyface track, just because she could. SOS spent 10 weeks as the Number One album in the country, and along the way broke records previously held by Beyoncé, Janet Jackson, Adele, Usher, and Whitney Houston.
She brought the album to life with her first international arena tour, and it rivaled a Broadway show, a surprise from an artist whose girl-next-doorness was for so long her calling card. Her sets were elaborate, choreography abundant, and plot meticulous. The SOS tour earned $34.5 million in the U.S. alone. There was so much demand for her that she began another North American leg in September, for which she has new costumes and is considering new choreography. “I just want it to be a better experience,” SZA says. “Every fucking time.”
All year, SZA has been inescapable. The week I spent shadowing her in L.A., I heard her music everywhere. I went to a nail salon — a K-pop cover of “Kill Bill” played from the speakers there. “Snooze” played on the radio as I approached the studio for her cover shoot. It’s always on the radio — it’s been the most popular song on hip-hop radio for more than three months.
SZA’s bravery compounds her multidimensional brilliance. Psychologist and Harvard professor Howard Gardner is credited with the theory of multiple intelligences, positing eight categories: verbal/linguistic, musical, intrapersonal, visual/spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, naturalist, interpersonal, and logical/mathematical. She’s pretty transcendent across all of them.
Her linguistic capacity and musicality go hand in hand, and she sings like she writes like she speaks — full of anecdotes and specificity. It all comes to her quickly: Two of her closest collaborators, producers Rob Bisel and Carter Lang, say she penned some of her greatest works in roughly 20 minutes, including “Ghost in the Machine,” the “Kill Bill” hook, and all of “Snooze” on SOS. Her gift goes beyond the verbal, says Lang, who considers her a producer, and one of the best. “She knows what’s up,” he says. “She hears everything in the music. She loves music, loves instrumentation, too. It triggers her to sing and to write.”
She’s hyper-aware of her emotions, idiosyncrasies, what makes her great and what makes her insufferable; this is intrapersonal intelligence. Unremarkable moments become mirrors for SZA, like when, in her trailer between “Snooze” scenes, her roughly nine-year-old French Bulldog, Piglet, has a stomach ache, as does she. She makes an existential joke about how perhaps she is Piglet, just anxious and wanting to be held. She seems to be in a perpetual state of reflection, the kind of constant cognition that would make anybody anxious.
Her naturalistic, visual, bodily, interpersonal aptitudes reveal themselves over the course of our time together — her love of the earth and the air, her diligence as filmmaker for “Snooze,” her skilled dancing in the video, her demeanor with her team. The people around her believe in her and win as she does. “This shit gives me a purpose,” Lang says. “It’s part of my identity.”
As SZA lives and strives, she fails — physically, creatively, sometimes of character. She falls off tractors and crashes on bicycles and gets swept up by waves. She has bad performances (when we meet, she’s catching flack for a pitchy guest appearance at a Lil Baby concert that she did mostly to appease her team), makes music videos that miss the mark (she was particularly unhappy with “Good Days,” she tells me), and loses awards (all five of the Grammys she was nominated for in 2018, to be precise). She’s apparently recently split with a partner who she would rather be with, and thinks her exes would call her selfish. She’s owning that she’s “not a nice girl.” But she doesn’t fail for long. She eats dirt and keeps going.
I didn’t think I’d be Number One at all. I thought that Taylor Swift was going to dust me.
WHEN I ARRIVE on the set of “Snooze,” I’m escorted to “video village,” a pair of large blue tents. While SZA and Bieber shoot a bedroom scene in a small building ahead of us, people from their executive teams and I watch on screens outside. Bieber and SZA are playing lovers who look young and broke, laying on a mattress on the floor and sharing a blunt. SZA recites “Snooze” to him, but also into a phone, as if the words had just come to her and she’s saving them in a voice memo.
When shooting stops, a small pink electric fan appears in her hand, and she’s still smoking the not-so-prop blunt. Film equipment is pulled out of the bedroom as the crew packs up for the next scene, a picnic with Bieber. Everyone seems thrilled with the shoot so far. “It’s giving act-tor,” says one rep from RCA, which releases SZA’s albums in conjunction with Top Dawg Entertainment, or TDE.
SZA reemerges in the field holding hands with one of her managers, MeLisa Heath. While most SZA fans are familiar with Terrence “Punch” Henderson as her manager and co-president of TDE (and with their sometimes-contentious relationship), she also has two women who manage her closely. They’re both on set the day I visit.
Heath, the older sister of SZA’s longtime producer ThankGod4Cody, tells me she joined SZA’s team recently — “after ‘Hit Different’ but before ‘Good Days.’ ” SZA’s other manager, Amber Wilson, has been SZA’s best friend for much longer than her colleague. SZA calls Wilson her “life partner.”
They met as teenage roommates in a pre-college program the summer before freshman year at Delaware State University. “When I had dropped out of college, she continued and had this business-management degree,” SZA explains. “She’s just really smart and makes everything that I try to say in long form, short form. She makes it make sense. I’m always like, ‘Can you please tell them?’ ”
Visual artist Sage Adams seems to tread the line of friend and staff as well, spending the day taking photos, procuring weed, and acting as SZA’s sounding board. Adams, who is gender-nonconforming, has worked as SZA’s creative director, shooting the cover for Ctrl and molding visual worlds for their friend’s music to inhabit. Their relationship grew from an Instagram DM Adams sent SZA in 2016, complimenting her outfit.
During the long break, I join SZA and Adams behind the trailer while they smoke together. While Adams and I discuss our favorite TV shows, prompted by Adams likening me to Ayo Edibiri from The Bear, SZA is on her phone, mulling over a collaboration invitation from Drake. Moments before, she and Adams held her phone to their ears listening to music from him, his signature “Six!” tag ringing out. Later that evening, Drake and SZA hop on a phone call, both sounding giddy. (On Sept. 15, they dropped the song — “Slime You Out,” their first ever.)
While we’re behind the trailer, it’s dusk, the umpteenth hour of a very long shoot that has gone smoothly. Though SZA was mildly anal about her makeup with Paley earlier, she seems to have been in chill spirits all day.
“What helps my anxiety is preparation,” SZA tells me in between hits. Much of the shoot came together through a series of Zoom calls, interlooped conversations between SZA and her director, Heath, Wilson, celebrity stylists Chloe and Chenelle Delgadillo, and her glam leads. “The reason why this video is not a negative experience is because I fitted with the [stylists]. I talked to my friends. I know everything. I had a whole group chat with hair and makeup. If it wasn’t for that, I would’ve had an attitude.” This is the first time she’s done a video this way, so organized and communicative, and she says she’s realized this is what she needs to “not be a bitch.”
It’s created a framework for larger projects on the horizon. “For all that shit we have coming up, like the [magazine] covers, performing at the Grammys, performing at the Country Music Awards, at the VMAs — things that I would normally say ‘Fuck no’ to because I’m terrified — I’m thinking that I’m going to say yes to because it might change my life,” SZA says.
The success of SOS seems to have raised questions for SZA that she doesn’t have clear answers for — namely, why she wants to take on some of the country’s biggest awards stages. Outside her trailer, I ask what she hopes will come from saying yes. “It’s not even about what I want,” she says. “That’s what’s scary. It’s about what could happen. You perform at the VMAs, you do excellent, you’re bigger. You perform at the Grammys, you do excellent, you’re bigger. You perform at the Grammys, you win Grammys, you’re extra big. You perform at the Country Music Awards and you’re Black and you do a good job — all of those things, what they mean together, is terrifying.”
Once I accept and integrate the things about myself that are bad traits, that’s when I start to heal them.
(As it turns, out SZA was preparing to perform “Snooze” at the VMAs, but her manager Punch pulled her out of talks with MTV when she wasn’t nominated for Artist of the Year, despite racking up six other noms. This made her the night’s second-most-nominated person, behind Artist of the Year winner Taylor Swift. Punch later told me that when he asked MTV why SZA was snubbed before moving forward with performance logistics, they wouldn’t engage. “That was the disrespect,” he says. “It wasn’t not getting nominated. The ultimate disrespect is you don’t even want to discuss why she wasn’t nominated or what the criteria was.” He adds: “When I asked about the Artist of the Year nomination, they were basically like, ‘She got nominated for a bunch of other ones.’ And to me, that felt like, ‘Shut up and dribble.’ ” MTV did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Though she’s pretty competitive and relatively confident, SZA was surprised by the immense success of SOS. “I didn’t think I’d be Number One at all,” she says. “I thought Taylor [Swift] was going to dust me.” She adds: “I don’t know what niggas wanna hear from me. I never know when things are going to be popular. I never know what songs people are going to attach to.”
Now that these next steps — giant ones — have been laid out for her, she wonders about failure: “If I do bad, then it means, like, am I not a good artist? Does it, like, bring my stock down 20 percent? Does that mean niggas is like, ‘Oh, she cooked. That was it, she’s washed. She had a moment. That was cool, but she can’t take it there. Because she can’t perform on TV, she doesn’t have star power’?” Part of her would rather not give people the grounds to decide. “If I don’t have star power, I don’t need niggas to know,” she says. “I would honestly like it to be my personal secret.”
In 2018, even after the adoration and fanfare Ctrl earned, she lost every Grammy she was up for, including Best New Artist, Best Urban Contemporary Album (now Progressive R&B), and Best R&B Song. At least one of those trophies should have been hers, but the competition included established acts like Bruno Mars, Donald Glover, and the Weeknd at the height of their popularity. Near the end of the Grammys that year, she had to perform “Broken Clocks,” earning even more acclaim for her set while leaving music’s biggest night empty-handed.
Lang was a producer on more than half of Ctrl and played bass on its tour. He recalls Grammy Night 2018 with a sense of deflation, “feeling her pain of having to go rock out onstage,” he says. After the initial losses that evening, SZA laughed, like, “That’s weird that that happened to me on TV,” she remembers. “That night, right before I lost the last two, Tyler [the Creator] was like, ‘Nah, it would be so fucking weird if you lost everything and they asked you to perform. That’d be so terrible, don’t even worry.’ Child, when I lost that last one …” she says, her speech slowing. She remembers looking back at Tyler, a few rows behind her, and walking out.
“It’s not normal,” SZA says. “I hate that niggas be acting like this shit is normal and nobody talks about it at all.” Think about it: having to smile, interview, and even sing through some of the stiffest competition you’ll ever face. “The Grammy room is one of the weirdest rooms ever,” SZA says. “There is so much wanting in there. Wanting to be noticed, wanting to be, like, acknowledged, to win, wanting to just be amongst niggas in the room, wanting to feel valuable or validated. All of us are in there striving for something. It means something, even though, like, this isn’t everything. But it’s kind of important that I’m here. It kind of matters.” Last year, with little on the line personally, she had a blast cheering for people like Beyoncé, Lizzo, Bad Bunny, and Steve Lacy. Still, she says, “it’s like a thirsty, dark space.”
Anyway, on her smoke break, SZA seems as (or even more) concerned about having lost her man as compared to losing any awards. She says they had been together for about six years before the recent split. So much of SOS deals in heartbreak — “Kill Bill,” “F2F,” “Special.” “Nobody Gets Me,” one of her favorite songs on the album, is about a previous partner, who I’m surprised to learn she was formerly engaged to. There was some niche online drama that I had missed last year. After she casually mentioned the engagement while chatting with fans after the Met Gala (a conversation about her then-forthcoming album turned to one about the supremacy of Capricorns, to which she responded enthusiastically that her ex-fiancé is one), she was accused of lying. (This is not uncommon. “SZA is a liar” is essentially a meme, with wannabe sleuths on social media alleging some of her life accounts are inconsistent.) She was pissed. “F*ck y’all. On everything,” she tweeted. “Believe what you want.”
When we talk, she doesn’t divulge her ex-fiancé’s identity, though she describes him as a fashion designer who doesn’t post on social media. They became unengaged five or six years ago, she says, having been together for a total of 11 years and engaged for five. I do some quick maths and conclude that they must have started dating around the time she was in high school. “I was fresh from high school,” she concurs.
Being a girl who has found herself in consecutive long-term relationships since adolescence myself, I know a boyfriend-girlie when I see one. “I hate being a long-term bitch,” SZA says. She does say she has dated casually — like Drake, who she was seeing while she was spending time in New York around 2009. This became known to the world when Drake said as much in 21 Savage’s song “Mr. Right Now.” They “were really young,” she says. “It wasn’t hot and heavy or anything. It was like youth vibes. It was so childish.”
Having spent her youth “around a nigga, up under a nigga, trying to get up under a nigga, like, needing that constant validation, companionship, like scared to be by myself and shit,” she’s now concerned she won’t settle into another relationship while she’s in her prime, as if when she’s older she won’t still be the incredible beauty she is now.
“I feel like I have more to offer than the way I look and my energy, but it’s like, I’m human, that shit is all-encompassing,” she reasons. “I want to stunt like me when I meet the person I envision me being with. I envision them falling in love with me the way I am. But I guess it’s like I have to release that idea. Maybe it’s because I don’t know if I’ll like the way I am later?”
It took SZA a long time to feel beautiful. Makeup has helped, learning to play up features she loves. It’s clear SZA has some self-love around her appearance, though that feeling fluctuates. The dips in it have made for some of her best music, but she challenges the identity of insecurity that’s thrust upon her.
“That’s a good old misconception,” she says. “People be like, ‘Insecurity is her brand.’ It’s like, ‘No, bitch, I’m honest with how I feel about myself, but if I catch you saying that, it’s going to be different. I’ll still beat your ass over disrespecting me.’ ”
Sure, SZA can be self-deprecating, but she treats herself like her own older sibling, the way a big sister might torment the younger one, but also defend her fiercely against anyone else trying to mess with her. “My nigga may play me out, that don’t mean he not begging me,” she says with a slick tongue. “I already know it’s not a replacement for me. I can have that understanding, and still express the vulnerability, because that’s interesting to me. Saying, like, ‘I got your nigga in a headlock and he crying over here,’ that shit cool, but that’s not really what moves me. I’m thinking about what moves me.”
There’s so much wanting in the Grammy room. Wanting to be noticed, to be acknowledged, to feel valuable or validated.
A FEW DAYS later, SZA is working on editing the “Snooze” video in Culver City, California. She, director Calder, and Cass Meyers, her BTS shooter, have a small room to themselves at Prettybird, a television and film production company that counts Beyoncé’s “Formation” video in its repertoire. When I walk in, SZA says hello mousily, quietly watching a Genius video of burgeoning singer Jordan Ward breaking down his song “White Crocs,” which I’ve heard SZA play no less than five times between the video shoot and her Rolling Stone cover shoot the day before. Her look is reminiscent of how I first encountered her as a fan a decade ago: fluffy, wavy hair, a vintage-looking cycling jersey up top, sporty shorts on the bottom, minimal makeup, a few chunky rings on her left hand. She has on high socks and red clogs with “Lana” painted on each foot. The signs of money are subtle; she’s wearing Gucci eyeglasses, a simple boxy black frame with a logo on the side.
She and Meyers are next to each other on a loveseat, opposite Calder, who’s stringing clips together in Adobe Premiere at a desk before stepping out to grab some water for us. We can see his work on a flatscreen above him. After multitasking between Genius and Meyers, SZA diverts more attention to Meyers’ laptop, where the photographer is sifting through footage she captured that might be added to the video. Meyers, a recent Spelman College grad, is the daughter of Dave Meyers, the renowned video director behind Missy Elliot’s “Work It,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble,” and SZA’s “Shirt.” SZA fell in love with Cass’ photography at a promotional shoot for SOS, the one where SZA is covered in mud. “She ate,” SZA says when I ask what drew her to Meyers. They giggle at this. “She ate ’cause that’s all she know how to do.”
While SZA sometimes works in a space like Prettybird’s, she says she also edits videos in her home studio, a big room with a desk and a couch that she’ll pile on with collaborators and a large screen to watch the work from. While reviewing footage, SZA and Meyers begin to rethink the current edit’s first frames, which are of Bieber.
“It made him the plot, when he’s not in the plot,” Meyers says softly. “Like, at all.”
“He’s not the plot,” SZA croaks, with a little amusement and disbelief that they made this mistake. They giggle again.
When Calder returns and everyone is settled with water, they home in on a secondary video, for a surprise song snippet she’ll attach to “Snooze.” She says the unreleased song is called “DTM,” likely for the refrain “Am I doing too much?” But after the video’s release, some fans have started to call it “Diamond Boy,” for the lyrics “Diamond boy, why you so shiny? Diamond boy, come get behind me.”
“Start it from the tizzy,” SZA instructs Calder casually. We look at a striking shot of her treading water in a lagoon. She notes that the frame should linger on her, still, as is for “as long as it can.” When Calder asks her how long she wants “DTM” to play, SZA says in its entirety — she plans to drop it with a new single pack for “Snooze.” To this, Calder teases, “No one tells me anything. This is great.”
SZA tells me “DTM” will be on the SOS deluxe, having finished the song “just the other day” and posting it on her Instagram story about a week prior. “Prior to that, it didn’t exist,” she says. It’s the first love song she can recall writing about someone she actively likes, right in the thick of the romance. It has the cadence of a rap freestyle, sporadic and bouncy, sung sweetly, with levity. She had recorded a full but rudimentary take, just bass, guitar, and her voice, before sending it to Lang to spruce up with more instruments, like drums. Lang says he built out the song around her melodies like a call-and-response, improvising against her performance.
They’ve been casually working on the SOS deluxe since the original release, in flowy and spontaneous bursts of creativity in between nonwork hangs, and often at a distance. Lang doesn’t pronounce SOS the way most people do, like an acronym, but as “Sos,” a nickname for SZA (born Solána Imani Rowe) used by folks very familiar with her. “Now I got to be called something else,” SZA says, now that the nickname is public. “I’m now going by Lana, but that might be burnt, too.” The deluxe, she says, will be called Lana. She’s planning to add an entire new body of work — 10 songs — on top of the existing SOS cuts. She cites Lil Uzi Vert’s LUV vs. the World 2, the deluxe version of their beloved Eternal Atake, as an example of what she’s thinking. She seems excited and focused. (The plan is for it to drop this fall, though it’s a moving target — after the video shoot, Bieber recorded a part for an acoustic version of “Snooze,” which came out on Sept. 15, pushing back the release of “DTM.”)
Right now, though, there’s a mountain of footage to mold “Snooze” out of. “There’s too much good stuff, and it’s going to be hard to select things,” says Calder. “Which is a great problem to have, but a problem to have.” Another problem: SZA isn’t feeling the lagoon shoot. Her displeasure is subtle but palpable.
“Yeah, it’s just not going to work,” she says gently. “We’re going to have to shoot a new visual, I hate to say it.”
“I’m ready,” says Calder optimistically. “That’s not an issue for me.”
Calder’s head swivels. “Huh, what?”
They’re in a time crunch. With “Snooze” taking off on radio, there’s a small window to capitalize on the public interest. SZA also seems to feel strongly about sharing “DTM” with it. Calder tries to reason with her softly, that perhaps the shot will work for 15 or 20 seconds of the teaser.
“It don’t add anything,” she explains. “Energetically, I feel like when I see that, it doesn’t make me feel anything.”
“Is it not making you feel intrigued?”
“It’s not shot in slow-motion, so it doesn’t allow the opportunity for tension.” This seems to click.
SZA has been doing this a while; she co-directed the music videos for one of her first singles, 2013’s “Teen Spirit,” and I can see her comfort in, or at least near, the director’s chair. She and Calder are quick and efficient with editing lingo. Her visual sense is like her musical one — raw and emotional, but precise. Though her vision is heart-led, she has a mastery of the tools she needs to execute it.
“Wait,” SZA says suddenly to Meyers. “Do you know what I just thought of? Topless in Cologne.”
The women squeal a chorus of affirmations. “Topless in Cologne,” I learn, is offhand footage in which SZA is naked in some German woods while touring Europe this summer. “You got that on you?” she says to Meyers like she’s asking for drugs. Meyers begins to search her laptop. SZA’s excitement grows as she and Meyers review it, from SZA in a white T-shirt against a jaw-dropping purple sunset and a white Ferrari to night-vision shots of her curvy silhouette in just a G-string. She decides this will be the basis for the “DTM” clip. “That’s the song,” she says. “I’m dropping that shit today.” She worries that if the video captures her stripping, it’ll feel too reminiscent of Erykah Badu’s “Window Seat,” so she decides the cut to her naked should be starker.
SZA is immersed in the footage, cracking up at herself hitting the “Snooze” dance routine that originated on tour and made its way into the music video “ass-naked in the forest.” She apparently has a nose for the magnificent when it comes to nature, calling for her crew to pull over when she thinks there might be a creek or valley in the cut. This led them on many adventures, particularly through the beautiful woods and countrysides of Europe. When Meyers marvels at her uncanny ability to find cool places, people, and creatures, like some wild horses that let them pet them, SZA agrees: “I sense Narnia!” she says, mocking herself being intrinsically guided to the majestic.
Calder revisits the lagoon footage. SZA is adamant about moving forward without it, but she takes a moment to check in with him about her tone. She notes how severe she can be when working, and wants to make sure she’s still being kind. Calder is completely comfortable, but still curious about the shot. “You don’t think it looks good?” he asks.
“Not for something that … It don’t make me feel like anything, for some reason.”
WITH A BIT more familiarity with me and the direction of the edit, SZA eases up in the Prettybird room, becoming loose and bright. She sits on the floor below the couch and kicks off her clogs. A worn copy of bell hooks’ All About Love pokes out of her Gucci backpack. She’ll eventually roll some weed up on top of it. Meyers leaves for a flight to New York that she’ll end up missing.
SZA is incessantly goofy, with a natural sense of tempo, inflection, and drama for perfect comedic timing, whether she’s shouting “Period, honey!” at a good cut in the edit or likening her “white-boy wig,” the mullet from the tractor scene, to the hair of a main character in a Nineties Black-cinema classic. (“A lot of y’all ain’t see Soul Food, and it shows,” she laments in the “Snooze” trailer.)
We commiserate over being the type of women who keep Zofran on hand for nausea. “On the humble, I be handing that all the time to rappers having tummy aches,” she says. At the video shoot, she told her choreographer, Fullout Cortland, “My stomach hurt, like most bad bitches do,” correlating a sensitive belly to good pussy.
In conversation she speaks in stories, describing things through a mix of general archetypes, specific cultural anecdotes, and her imagination. For example, at the shoot the day before, she described Bieber as giving her “K-Fed vibes,” playing Boyfriend Number One in “Snooze,” referring to Kevin Federline, Britney Spears’ tabloid-fodder background dancer turned second husband circa 2004. “ ‘It’s the tats, it’s the hat, it’s the wife-beater,’ ” she says she told Bieber. “ ‘It’s a little dangerous, but you also give me Bobby from the small town that does all the repairs. Always praying, never with a bitch. Super hot. Bobby who fixes everything and herds animals with no women. Perhaps a widower.’ ”
People be like, ‘Insecurity is her brand.’ No, I’m honest with how I feel about myself.
SZA talks about the people in her life, be them peers like Bieber, friends like Wilson, or her mother, with vim and color. “I just love interesting people,” she tells me when I note this. “I am really inspired by people so much.”
However, fame has made broadening her network of interesting people tricky. She’s historically made friends with other artisans, and even fans online, and brought those relationships into her real world, like her creative director Adams, the “SOS” and “Smoking on My Ex Pack” producer Jay Versace, even Calder — a DM becomes a hang which becomes a friendship. I get it. Some of my best friends, especially in media and entertainment, were people I first experienced on Twitter.
Feeling like someone with a lot to offer and no one willing to take it has made SZA particularly open to strangers. “I’m never off the clock for my fans, because I love that shit,” she says in the edit room. “They’re my family, and they’re my people. I know what it’s like to feel small or like somebody doesn’t care, because that’s who I was my whole life. In middle school, elementary school, I wasn’t popular. So I try to make sure niggas know ‘I hear you, I see you. I have time to stop for you. Yes, we can smoke together, you can come backstage. You can come to my house if you want.’ Hella fans have spent the night with me and been to my house many times.”
“Whoa,” says Calder.
“Many,” she reiterates.
“How do you … ” I start to ask before she finishes my question.
“How do I determine who’s safe to do that? I don’t. And sometimes it feels really bad.”
She says she hasn’t been burned by fans in the past, but she has by people she’s connected with to work. She tells us about a photographer who, she says, asked to shoot her in New York, then, she claims, published photos of her without her consent a couple of years back. She agreed to the shoot, feeling empathetic toward a young Black photographer who could never get through the red tape that had begun to surround her. She went to the location without management, just her mom and a friend. She said it went well, though some shots were more risqué than anything she had done before. She thanked the photographer, but let him know she wasn’t sure when or if she’d use his work.
She says he began to pressure her to post them, and when she didn’t, she claims, he told her he would himself, or she could purchase them from him. When he posted them without her consent, she says, she had to purchase the rights from him in order to take them down. “[He] played to the internet like he was a young Black creative that I lied on and that I took advantage of,” she says. Her supporters, she says, doxxed the photographer in return, leaving her unable to clear her name herself without making things worse. “I couldn’t even redeem myself,” she says.
I wonder if SZA’s openness to others comes from wanting to feel and be perceived more like the real person she is rather than a character who is watched and not experienced. Her realness is what made her a hit machine in the first place, after all. If you’ve broken through by being yourself, once you’ve succeeded, that can be to your detriment. Be authentic, but not too much, otherwise you might threaten people — or get threatened by them.
PRETTYBIRD OFFERS TO order us lunch. We go for craft sandwiches by Ggiata, a newer shop in L.A. inspired by the Italian delis of the Philly-Jersey-Delaware tristate area of which SZA, Calder, and I are very familiar with. Before we head outside to eat, SZA talks her shit a little, thinking through why she doesn’t do it more. It’s nice to hear her owning her power after all the worrying about awards season she did a few nights prior. “Don’t you think it’s interesting that, like,” she starts, playfully, “for the amount of shit that people be talking on the slick, like ‘SZA not that girl,’ it’s like I don’t be doing a lot of I’m-that-girling and beating y’all over the head with stats.” She could, is what she’s saying: SOS has earned nearly 10 billion streams worldwide and spawned a Billboard Hot 100 Number One in “Kill Bill.” However, she says, blasting her wins out of spite is not really her style. “I’m here to do better all the time, and maybe better than you if I have to, because that’s just the way I’m built,” she says. “I’m competitive by nature, and that makes me happy. I don’t want to harm you, I just want to do great.”
She reasons that competitive spirit is the root of suffering, but maybe that’s just her cross to bear. “It’s like, once I accept and integrate all the things about myself that are bad traits, I feel like that’s when I start to heal them,” she says. “And I really am coming into this era of … I’m OK with not being a nice girl. I’m OK with people knowing that I’m competitive.”
I insinuate that perhaps some people have built out an identity of sweetness for her, but she corrects me, that instead people think she’s soft, maybe even weak. “Niggas think I’m a pussy, I don’t like that,” she says. It’s the thing where, because she’s made songs about her insecurities, she’s reduced to them; a part of her, or a part of her work, keeps people from seeing all of her.
I think of the scrutiny her friend Lizzo had been under recently. The two have been friends for nearly a decade. Lizzo had first met SZA as a fan, taking a selfie together at a Minneapolis show. A year later, she was booked as an opener on a mini tour of SZA’s in 2015. In recent years, they’ve showered each other with praise and support: SZA going to bat for Lizzo online and remixing her hit “Special,” Lizzo providing background vocals for the SOS track “F2F,” having spent a session writing an EP’s worth of rock songs together during the recording process. “There’s nobody in the industry that fucks with me and that I fuck with the way that Lizzo fucks with me and the way I fuck with her,” SZA said earlier this year.
In talking through the one-dimensional perception of SZA as insecure, my mind goes to Lizzo; how she may have been perceived as a paragon of empowerment and body positivity and nothing else, so when three of her former dancers recently leveled charges of workplace harassment against her — ranging from bullying to sexual coercion — it amplified the public uproar.
Seeing two people defined in one way because of their music, and seeing potential revelations that complicate those perceptions — the comparison is bare-bones, but seems to me like the most appropriate point to raise the issue of the accusations against Lizzo with SZA. So I do.
For SZA, that idea of Lizzo as selfless and empowering is the reality of her. “Everybody wants there to be a man behind the curtain. It’s like everybody wants the Wizard of Oz to not be real,” she says. “It’s like sometimes that’s not really the case. Sometimes it’s not nobody behind the curtain. It’s really Oz in there.” As she reflects on who she knows the singer to be — not perfect, but genuine — she stifles tears. She notes that the situation is delicate, that she knows little about it, and opts not to say more publicly. “I’m just saying, based on the values and the energy that I see in my friend, I just really think that she’s a beautiful person, and I just really pray that everybody recovers from this because everybody deserves to heal and feel safe and feel loved,” she says. “I just really hope that everybody ends up feeling like that when this is all said and done. Because that’s the bottom line.”
After a lunch of chicken Parmesan sandwiches and chopped cheeses complemented by tequila and mixers laid out by Prettybird, SZA and Calder reset for work. They’re gearing up for a long night, and start by trying to decide between performance shots of SZA smoothly pointing a finger gun or dismissively waving her hands to illustrate the line “I told that lie, I’ll kill that bitch,” in “Snooze.” The filmspeak rapidly picks back up.
I’m not sure the SZA discourse centers on how multifaceted her emotions and abilities truly are. When she’s praised, it’s often for her diaristic earnestness, but she’s been chided for this, too: Early social media critiques of SOS lambasted her and the women who related to her takes on heartbreak as immature. She’s been reduced to a sad-girl songwriter, her appearance has been picked apart, her dating history has been prodded. But the acclaim and commendation can miss what’s evident in the editing room: the precision, vision, expanse, and technical ability through which she makes her art. SZA is undoubtedly stanned — but is she as respected as she is popular? Lots of people enjoy her, but do they see her?
SZA isn’t naturally scared of falling or failure — it’s the intensity of the scrutiny as she does it. SZA ruminates on the act of being perceived. She’s pulled up to a red carpet fully dressed and turned around before setting foot on it, she says, paralyzed by the part of the job that is being watched in a way that’s so isolating.
“People always say shit like, ‘You signed up for this,’ ” she had said the day before, when she was smoking with Adams behind her trailer. “That scares me. Because like, no, we didn’t. We signed up to make music, and share our art. Some of us didn’t even sign up to make grand millions. I didn’t think I would get rich making music. But I did want to be cool and get my shit off and be like, ‘Look, my ideas were as cool as I thought they were in my head.’ I failed out of college and, like, I can’t keep a job, but I am a smart, creative person, and have a purpose and function.”
If it were just about the money, more people would trap, or get high-paying jobs, or bartend and strip like she did. “It’s not for that,” she says, speaking plainly and with purpose. “It’s not for power. It’s for me. So I can feel like I am enough.”
Produced by RHIANNA RULE. Production Manager: XAVIER HAMEL. Photography direction by EMMA REEVES. Styling by JARED ELLNER for THE ONLY AGENCY. Hair by DEVANTE TURNBULL. Makeup by DEANNA PALEY. Nails by JOHANA CASTILLO. Tailoring by ALLISON ACHAUER. Contributing stylist to SZA: ALEJANDRA HERNANDEZ. Production assistance by PETER GIANG and TCHAD COUSINS. Lighting Director: BYRON NICKLEBERRY. Photography assistance: DOM ELLIS. Digital Technician: JUSTIN RUHL. Styling assistance: BROOKE FIGLER, MAYA SAUDER. Post production by ANGIE MARIE HAYES for THE HAPPY PIXEL PROJECT INC.
From Rolling Stone US