SZA by Jada Pinkett Smith

SZA by Jada Pinkett Smith

SZA opens up about healing her rapidly growing audience through her distinctive sound, and tapping into a powerful sense of femininity along the way.

SZA opens up about healing her rapidly growing audience through her distinctive sound, and tapping into a powerful sense of femininity along the way.

Photography: Inez & Vinoodh

Styling: George Cortina

Text: Jada Pinkett Smith

This article appears in the pages of V113, The Music Issue, on newsstands May 3rd. Pre-order your copy now at shop.vmagazine.com

If music today is defined by authenticity, it’s thanks to acts like SZA. Born Solána Rowe, the songwriter whose voice is currently inescapable on the radio (see: “The Weekend” and “Love Galore”) helped usher in alternative R&B’s rise in 2012 with her self-released debut EP, See.SZA.Run. She followed it up with S, which resonated with dreamy electronic beats that cushioned candid lines like “Wish I was prettier,” and, “Feel like maturity is overrated.” Four years later, SZA has doubled down on those sentiments with her long-awaited full-length album Ctrl, an emotional and sonic masterpiece that celebrates the kinds of feelings—anxiety, insecurity, loneliness—that sit like a brick in your stomach.

Its reach is clear: Ctrl has gone platinum, its chart-topping singles have gone twice-platinum, and the album earned SZA five nods at the recent Grammy Awards, making her the most-nominated female artist of the year—which SZA has since dismissed. She’s casual, after all. When she arrives to her interview, she’s wearing sweatpants and a boxy tie-dye T-shirt. When she sings, “I mean really, it’s same me, it’s old me,” she’s not kidding. MARISSA G MULLER

Jada Pinkett Smith Girl, how is everything going, and what’s changed in your life?

SZA No privacy, a lot of expectations, responsibilities, and weird encounters, and recognizing my service, purpose, and place. It goes from [reaching] 10 kids to a thousand kids to a million kids. You have to be really listening to and touching them, all the time.

JPS I talk about that a lot with musicians I know. Music is such an influence, as a transmission of what people take in vibrationally. What is it that you look to transmit in your music?

SZA In my music, it’s really hard to be super-conscious; I’m in another state of consciousness when I’m making music. But when I’m my most effective, that mode of healing is when I get to perform and see everybody. I send out and absorb love. Meet-and-greets are a new thing I never got to do before. I meet, like, 200 people before each show. We hug each other and really look at each other. Healing and loving people, I guess that’s me.

JPS When I watch you perform, there’s a certain gentleness and openness. I know it’s all new for you, in a way; it’s on a different scale. It’s really refreshing to see that feminine fluidity. There’s not a lot of gentleness in the world today. It’s just kind of natural for you to flow like that; it’s really beautiful to watch, honestly. Your audiences have grown: how’s that been for you energetically on stage?

SZA [After] I’d just come off my American tour, where everybody knew me, then I [was] opening for someone else in niche places I’ve never been. It was rough and weird. Normally [the audience will] bounce stuff at me and I bounce it back, but sometimes I feel like I’m pulling and dragging the joy out of the moment and trying to magnify it. You’ve just gotta try anyway.

JPS Absolutely. As an artist you just have to figure out how to break through to people in a different manner. When you’re on the road, how do you keep yourself centered? For me, that’s one of the most difficult aspects of what we do: being away from everyday life and surroundings, from our grounded, rooted space.

SZA Meditation is the easiest way to re-center and ground yourself. Sometimes, I get really tired; I feel like I’m hitting a wall I’m about to break through. I just know I have to keep going because there’s about to be some sort of weird endurance experience after. I’d never been on tour before; I never did 40 or 50 cities. I just had to build calmness. I talk to my mom a lot. If I feel super chaotic, she usually calls me first. She always knows.

JPS She seems like she’s a real grounding force for you. Tell me about your relationship.

SZA Oh my God, I would love for you to meet my mom. It would be insane. She is just amazing. She can find joy in anything. She’s incredibly nonreactive; there’s so much love emanating from her presence. She walks in a room, and it just lights up. She used to be a pathologist, so her voice is super-soothing; her diction is amazing. I love her.

JPS [Laughs] I can tell! That’s beautiful. Are you the only child?

SZA I have half-brothers and half-sisters, but I’m my mom’s only child. She’s my favorite person, but I grew into that.

JPS When did you learn that your mom was amazing? There is a moment—I see Willow kind of transitioning into that.

SZA Willow has always known.

JPS Yeah, but it just deepens. It really does. When she looks at me, it’s a trip.

SZA For my mom, too. I’m, like, obsessed with her and she’s like, what’s wrong with you? I always knew my mom was so joyous and radiating, but it used to repel me because I didn’t understand. I felt super chaotic when I was young. I was going through so much darkness. My mom said I was born serious as hell. I don’t know what that means, but I went through a lot of bullying and ostracizing in school, so it was hard for me to connect with anyone.

JPS Why were you bullied?

SZA I was awkward. I’m super sensitive, and my mother made me extra sensitive because she’s just so unapologetically loving. I’ve realized some people don’t hug in their families, or say that they love each other all day. My family tells me they love me all day; I’m hyper-affectionate, laying it on other people, just because it’s what we do in my house. But in the world, that was weird, and it was really difficult to be super sensitive and hyper-open. It was just frightening. I guess my mom represented something that made me feel weak. I felt like, this is why I’m hurt. When I got older, I realized, Oh shit, the whole world is wrong and my mom is right. I sort of panicked. I needed to align myself with the way she lives her life in order to better understand her. Then, when I got to better understand her, I started really loving and cherishing her in a different way, like my sensei. It’s a whole different vibe.

JPS It’s beautiful that you see the power, the feminine spirit, in your mother—in a world where the feminine is really kind of degraded, not respected in its truest form, the receptive, nurturing, open, compassionate, and understanding. I see that power and feminine essence in you. We as women are really understanding and embracing all of those feminine characteristics that this world tells everyone they shouldn’t be. I want to give you props on that, and kudos to your mom.

SZA Thank you. You’re part of that, for my mom, myself, my sisters, all of us.

JPS How did you meet Willow, actually?

SZA So random! I heard her song once, and I just was really drawn to her. I was like, I have to meet her; I don’t know why, but I just have to know her. She’s super special. She had so much glow and confidence.

JPS You’ve always been there as her big sister, and I’ve appreciated that. She’s always talking about you. She has a definite special connection to you.

SZA I feel that way about her. She’s so much older than her age. I just love to watch her blossom. It’s so wonderful. Y’all are blessed.

JPS I feel blessed she chose me as her mom; she’s taught me a lot. In regards to being black, female, and in the music industry, where there’s so much misogyny, it can be hard. Do you feel any of that?

SZA It’s tricky. I’m the only woman on my label. It’s tough, but I’m also not afraid. My mom has a hyper-femininity, but my dad is hyper-masculine. My daddy’s over six feet, bald head, 260 [pounds], he’s immense, but in the most beautiful way. He’s very powerful. It would take a lot for me to be afraid of you as a man.

JPS So you feel a certain internal protection?

SZA I feel like I don’t need a man to protect me. I love my dad. My dad is so masculine, so I feel like I’ve already experienced extreme hyper-masculinity. I’m not afraid of it, but nor do I welcome it. I’ve seen it go in that deep egoic space when it just gets like, you can’t hear me at all.

JPS That’s actually a really beautiful, very powerful position: Hey, I’m just here as me. I didn’t have a father, so I took on a lot of masculine traits.

SZA I had a father, but he was so masculine, I took on a lot of masculine traits. I didn’t connect to my mother, her femininity didn’t reach me, until I was older and could understand. I tapped into my dad’s aggression; I’ve learned how to love my dad, and damn near heal my dad.

JPS Are your parents still together?

SZA Mhm. I think they’ve been [together] for 38 [years].

JPS Wow. You’re like a unicorn! I need to have a conversation with [your mom] about marriage. Okay, well, let me ask this. You were nominated for a lot of Grammys. How did that feel?

SZA That was a crazy lesson: Although you may want to quantify yourself by this landmark, God will not allow it. Be grateful for where you’re at, this was just an indicator you’re doing a good job; now stay fucking focused. My granny and mom were there, and it was the first time my mom didn’t know what to say. My mom is so well-spoken, and she was struggling to find the words. I had to perform after all the news broke. It was definitely the most clear, obvious test anyone’s ever given me: God’s just going at me like, so you lost all five [awards], they’re gonna announce you were nominated for all five right before you go onstage, and you have to do a good job and believe in yourself, are you ready? I’m just like, OK, no doubt.

JPS So you get nominated and you don’t go to any afterparties?

SZA No, no, no, no. But I never was an afterparty person. Even if I was to win, I wouldn’t go to the afterparty. I’m just not that way. It’s so draining.

JPS It’s very hard. I know and I get it.

SZA I don’t drink, either, so I never see the point. I went out to the club recently, for my friend’s birthday party—I had a horrible time. I never want to do it again.

JPS So, what do you do? What does a night look like for you after the Grammys?

SZA I roll up a big ol’ blunt, I dial my friends, and we just talk. We laugh a lot, actually. I meditate really hard. My regular nights, sometimes I go for a drive, or usually smoke a blunt, meditate, chill with people I love. I wish I had something more fun to say.

JPS But that is the most fun! Sitting at home, with your people. I love just being here with my girls, we get a little bit of wine and it’s the most fun I’ll ever have. I totally get it. I’m really proud of you, not just your musical career achievements. You’re coming into yourself, you’re standing strong. It’s tough. It’s a beautiful thing. I’m always here for you, mama. I love you.

SZA I love you, too!

BODYSUIT VERSACE
Credits: Makeup Samuel Paul (Forward Artists) using Chanel Beauty  Hair Randy Stodghill (Opus Beauty) using Oribe manicure gina viviano (artists by timothy priano) using dior vernis  executive producer stephanie bargas (vlm productions) Production coordinator Eva Harte (vlm productions)  studio Producer Tucker Birbilis (VLM Productions) Digital technician Brian Anderson (VLM studio)  Lighting technician Jodokus Driessen (VLM studio) Photo assistant Joe Hume  Tailor Martin Keehn  Stylist assistants Steven La Fuente, Julie Brigati

UP NEXT

The Boldly Hued Mascaras That Are Anything But Basic