In the past few years, Top Dawg Entertainment has positioned itself to be a rap juggernaut. True, it's not yet as big as G.O.O.D. Music, YMCMB, or MMG, but they have an undeniably talented roster headlined by one of the few rappers who can still go platinum, Kendrick Lamar. However, the L.A. based label stills boasts rappers like ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock, who are all buzzing, respected artists making their own waves.
They don't move like a regular rap label either, having their artists release endless mixtapes to build their buzz. Instead they move a lot like an independent label like Tech N9ne's Strange Music, they release independent albums, tour like crazy, and invest in their artists. TDE might not be running this rap shit just yet, but they have all the pieces in play to run it for years to come.
That's why their latest signing, SZA, is so intriguing. The 23-year-old singer has only been making music for a few years. Last year, she dropped two free EPs, See.SZA.Run (which Complex premiered) and S. Although she didn't blow up on the blogs off that, she managed to get the ear of TDE and recently signed to them (along with allegedly Isaiah Rashad). And now, thanks to her affiliation with TDE, her recent tracks like “Teen Spirit” (produced by WondaGurl) and “Julia" are getting a lot of attention. Now she's in the position to be the top girl at Top Dawg, and their only singer. We had the St. Louis born, New Jersey rasied singer/songwriter swing by the Complex offices to talk about growing up Muslim, getting into making music, and how she got down with TDE. Find out, Who Is SZA?
As told to Insanul Ahmed (@Incilin)
Check out TDE Presents SZA
Growing Up In Maplewood, New Jersey
SZA: “I was born in St. Louis, but I’m from Maplewood, New Jersey. Maplewood is completely different than the rest of New Jersey. It’s very small. It’s quietly affluent but more lowkey. Lauryn Hill is from my town though. It was predominantly white, Jewish. I went to school with all white kids and my Girl Scout troop everyone was white. I was being the token black everyday.
I went to school with all white kids and my Girl Scout troop everyone was white. I was being the token black everyday.
“My dad was an executive producer at CNN, he just retired. My mom was an executive at AT&T, a global account lady I have no idea what she did, I just know she was never home and speaks several languages.
“I was a gymnast for 13 years so I was heavy into sports. I directed all my attention to it. I did really well in sports and was captain of my team. I was hardcore USA Gymnastics. When I was a sophomore in high school in 2005, I was 5th in the nation as a gymnast. The extreme exercise stunts your growth, your overexerting your body so much it doesn’t grow. Your period doesn't come till super late. So I was like 4’9' forever. Once I got lazy and didn’t want to practice and got into other shit, I grew. Now I’m 5’4'.”
Being Raised Muslim
SZA: “I was raised orthodox Muslim. Very sheltered, very conservative. I used to wear overalls and baggy clothes because modesty is a big thing [in Islam]. All my friends were Muslim with the exception of my neighbors. I didn’t watch television or listen to the radio. When I was cheerleading and doing gymnastics, my dad made me put on leggings and long sleeve. I was a girl so my dad was like, ‘You do nothing.’
“My mother is actually Christian but she goes to [the Friday prayer for Muslims] Jumu’ah and we don't have Christmas trees in the house. When I got older, my dad eventually was like, ‘You can have a very small Christmas tree but you can’t put lights on it.’ She’s really respectful, she would take it down as soon as it was over. My dad is really tolerable.
Somewhere around the 7th grade, when 9/11 happened, it got weird and awkward. I was attacked at school and taunted. My dad’s mosque came under fire, it was a bad time. I just wanted to be regular. At school, I wanted to fit in so I would take my hijab off.
“I wore a hijab for a while and went to Muslim prep school. I [went to the secondary school] everyday after my regular school. On Fridays, I would not go to my normal school at all, I would just go to my prep school and be reciting surahs and all. It was super interesting, but once I got to a certain age I made my own decisions and veered away, very hard.
“Somewhere around the 7th grade, when 9/11 happened, shit got weird and awkward. I was attacked at school and taunted. It got really uncomfortable and I started to get embarrassed. My dad’s mosque came under fire, it was a bad time. I just wanted to be regular. At school, I wanted to fit in so I would take my hijab off. I asked my mom if I could go school shopping, rather than let my dad because I would just wear long skirts or overalls everyday.
“Sophomore year of high school, I was covering again except when I was in gymnastics and cheerleading. I don’t know why I did that again; I think I was starting to feel like ungrounded or losing my mind. I was upset and had to go back to something that was familiar to me so I started covering again. That didn’t go over well, I was teased and antagonized about that. After that I just quit. Me and my dad separated really hard, we didn't talk for a while and things were weird because I was such a daddy’s girl.
“I’ll probably being wearing a hijab in the next year, I’m regressing, it’s weird. I go to Jumu’ah when I can with my dad. Some things never change. I’ll feel most comfortable with Islam forever. It just makes most sense to me out of everything else, there’s less variables and less space for human error. It’s very rigid but it’s safe because you can trust it. There’s no photos or idles, no songs or hymnals, it is what it is. I like the clarity.”
Dropping Out of College
SZA: “After high school, I went to three separate colleges. My freshman year I got high and failed out, I was just high everyday. I never had that much weed in my face before and it was free. My roommate was so chill and one of my closest friends now. We just ended up pushing our beds together and having slumber parties everyday. Both of us failed out of class and we just sat on the curb in front of our dorms and made occasional trips to the cafe. It was really fucked up and my mom is still heated I’m sure.
It was more of the experience knowing that I could be the only black girl in my class and win. That’s how I am with everything. Even sports, I was the only black girl on my team, the youngest on my team, the smallest on my team.
“I’m really good at school, but I’m bored with school. I got really good grades and I love to write but I just wasn’t passionate about it. I’ve done so much odd shit, like worked at Sephora, and so much nonsense that I didn’t really care about.
“I didn’t even take courses in school I couldn’t ace, I would take hard courses. I beasted out of Philosophy, I was crazy at Chemistry and Biology. It was more of the experience knowing that I could be the only black girl in my class and win. That’s how I am with everything. Even sports, I was the only black girl on my team, the youngest on my team, the smallest on my team. It just made me want to gut punch everyone. I’m really competitive but I’m more so competitive with myself than others.
“I went through this tight dress and heels phase for like a year of two and wanted to be cute and accepted. That didn’t fit me and I didn’t feel comfortable and my stomach hurt. Now I’m back to dressing like a boy because it looks comfortable and more familiar.”
SZA: “Growing up, I couldn't do anything other than what my dad did. So basically, I listened to Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong. That was my only option. My only interaction outside of those things had to be by accident.
“One of my classmates had a bar mitzvah so my dad let me go. She gave us this little goodie bag that had a mixtape that had Red Hot Chili Peppers, LFO, Macy Gray all this emo sad rich white kid shit on it. I loved that CD, I played it until it was finished.
I was obsessed with my sister, I wanted to get closer to her. I heard a Lil Jon song one time on her answering machine, so I bought a Lil Jon CD just to play that one song. Of course my dad found it, threw it out, and grounded me.
“My sister was completely different than I was. She’s my half sister so we have the same dad different moms. She was going through all kinds of shit and came from Cali to our house and changed everything. She was blasting Wu-Tang, Cash Money, and Lil Jon all day every day. It was my only outlet into what was going on [at that time].
“I was obsessed with my sister, she was so close yet so far away and I wanted to get closer to her. I heard a Lil Jon song one time on her answering machine, so I bought a Lil Jon CD just to play that one song. I didn't even like song that much, it just made me feel like I was closer to her. Of course my dad found it, threw it out, and grounded me.
“Other than that, the slight glimpses of outside music came from this iPod I found in gymnastic camp. The dial didn’t work, but it would play all the way through. It had Common, Bjork, a lot of Wu, Nas, Mos Def, Hov on it. That was my only thing and I was like this shit is tough. That stuck hard, so when I finally heard Common’s voice again I didn’t know who he was because I couldn't see him on the screen but I was like who is that? Then I found out it was him and got into Common. I’ve had a crush on him for like a decade.”
Her name, SZA
SZA: “SZA is from the supreme alphabet. Like, The RZA is Rulers, Zig-zag, Allah. You have rulers like sovereignty over one’s self and the world around you. S is the supreme alphabet stands for savior but that didn’t sit right with me so I switched it to either sovereign or savior however you feel.”
Getting Into Making Music
SZA: “[I started pursuing music] like a year ago. Totally not the plan originally. It fell into place on it’s own. I’m an over-thinker and I get really anxious about things so I was worried about what people would think of me. Is my music good enough? The habit of not listening to the radio stuck. I was worried I wasn’t connected enough to my peers and it wouldn't meet up anywhere. I never went to put my music out but eventually I made song-by-song, piece-by-piece over a couple months like, ‘I guess I should make a project.’
“My brother Daniel is a rapper named Manhattan. The first time I ever sang, he was doing this song called 'Where Do We Go From Here' and he was like come sing. I don’t even know why he asked me to do that. ‘What do I say?’ Say whatever you feel. I sung these notes and when I heard it back I was like, ‘This doesn't sound so bad’ but my only reference to anyone singing had been either Ella Fitzgerald or ODB or my neighbor Ashley.
I was always conscious I don't sound like Ashanti, I don't have this soft whatever, I have a little rasp. So when I sang for the first time on my brother’s track, I was like, ‘It doesn't sound that bad.’ Listening to it now, it’s horrendous and the worst song I've ever made.
“My parents would drop me at my neighbor Ashley’s house when they went to the office in the morning before school. She would always sing all these Aaliyah jams, Ashley had the prettiest voice. I could never get my voice to sound like that. I was always conscious I don't sound like Ashanti, I don't have this soft whatever, I have a little rasp. So when I sang for the first time on my brother’s track, I was like, ‘It doesn’t sound that bad.’ Listening to it now, it’s horrendous and the worst song I’ve ever made. That was the beginning of hearing my voice and being like ‘I can do something.’
“Around the same time, my then boyfriend was sponsoring these producers named Christian Rich who are now signed to Pharrell. I was hanging out with them and just singing this other song and they were like, ‘You sing really well and should sing at our show.’ I had no songs, but they were like, ‘It’ll be fun, just fuck around, go on stage. We have our band pick any song.’ I sang Amy Winehouse’s 'Me and Mr. Jones.'
“I went on stage and sang that song and everyone is like, ‘What?’ My boyfriend didn’t even know I could sing, no one knew I could sing. It was the most random shit ever. Everyone since then was like, ‘You can sing and we should do something with that.’ But I didn't feel comfortable with it, I didn’t think that it was me. Like we should leave that to the other girls, the light skinned girls.”
Getting Down With TDE
SZA: “I met them like two and a half years ago at Kendrick’s first show at Gramercy theatre for CMJ. At the time 10Deep was sponsoring the show and I was working with 10Deep. Afterwards I was like, I can bring you guys some merch to where you’re staying, let me know your sizes. I get everybody’s sizes and brought enough merch to clothe a small village, it was insane.
“I bought my home girl Ashley with me because I was afraid to go by myself. She was listening to some music I did with my brother and she jamming out with her headphones all loud. [TDE’s president] Punch was like, ‘What are you listening to?’ She was like, ‘You didn’t know? This is her.’
30 minutes later, after I leave the hotel, I get a phone call. It’s Top Dawg and he goes, ‘There ain’t no 3Xs in here, we told you, you have to bring 3Xs.’ I’m like, ‘I know but we don’t make 3X, I’m really sorry is there anything I can do? Give you more clothes?’ He’s like, ‘Come get all this s**t, we don’t want none of that s**t.’
“I was like this is the most unprofessional thing in my entire life, please stop talking, this isn’t about anything that we are doing. This is about dropping off 10Deep, getting in and getting out. He snatched the headphones from her and listened to it and was like, ‘Your voice is really crazy, like really pretty.’ He was like you should come meet folk, what are you doing later?’ Nothing. ‘I might call you to come to the studio.’ I was like, ‘Oh shit’ I’m in.
“30 minutes later, after I leave the hotel, I get a phone call. It’s Top Dawg and he goes, ‘There ain’t no 3Xs in here, we told you, you have to bring 3Xs.’ I’m like, ‘I know but we don’t make 3X, I’m really sorry is there anything I can do? Give you more clothes?’ He’s like, ‘Come get all this shit, we don’t want none of that shit.’ I’m crying, I’m getting yelled at because I fucked up. I didn’t go back to get it, they can just throw it out the window if that’s how they feel. I’m terrified and not going back. Needless to say, that studio option is out of the window. As soon as it was there, it was gone.
“But I started to talk to Punch on some friendly shit. Every once and in a while he would come to the city and be like, ‘What’s up? Just checking in on you.’ I built a rapport with him, more so me as a person. Every once in a while I’d send him a song I did to see what he thought.
“No one other than Daniel, Ashley, and my boyfriend had heard my music, not even my mom. But he heard it and liked it and his opinion matters. I’m sending him all these jams and he’s like, ‘What are you trying to do?’ I didn’t know. So we are just keeping it casual.
“Needless to say, Punch found me. I switched managers in-between but to come full circle back to TDE is the craziest thing ever. It’s almost like divine shit. I trust him already as a human being and watched how he moved and how they moved. They move with integrity.
“Even with them getting hot at me for bringing the wrong sizes, that’s your team. You ride for your team and don’t give a fuck about 10Deep. At that time, 10Deep was a multimillion-dollar company and Dot had just done his first show at Gramercy and they wanted to sponsor you and you don’t care because it’s more about your integrity. Moments like that taught me the highest and utmost respect for them. I trust them with my life because they are real and family like, more than a business.
I trust Punch already as a human being and watched how he moved and how they moved. They move with integrity.
“It’s efficient because it’s a small team; it’s more personal that way. I’m getting phone calls from Top and recording in his house. It’s not intense reassurance and it motivates me to be iller because they are not overly reassuring people, they are very more, ‘You know what you are suppose to do, go do it.’ That’s the way it’s supposed to be. I’d rather somebody nurture me in my creativity and give me all the tools I need, link me with any producer, and give me a studio I can record in all the time and maybe come in every once and awhile and organize my thoughts and talk to me.
“That’s all I could ever ask for. Rather than somebody celebrate and give me a bottle of champagne and a party. This is the most genuine support group you could ever ask for. It’s like what a label should be.”
Pursuing Music Full Time
SZA: “So we put a project together, sort of. I did my first song 'Time Travel Undone.'Then I did my second song which was 'County' over this Empire of The Sun instrumental that I thought was crazy. Everything else I found beats on the Internet or was it somebody else’s session.
One thing Punch has taught me is that when talent fails you, all you have is skill. So right now I can be Allen Iverson and not study and not try to build my craft and rely on raw talent and ability. But it will fail me eventually.
“Now I can tell that I’m way more interested in what I’m doing, before my fear or anxiety was keeping me, I had studio phobia. I’d put out a good song and not know if I could do it again.
“I finished my next project that’s coming up but I don’t even believe I’m finished, I’m not done until that shit is out, then I’m finished. I’ve been recording like mad. I’ve done 15 songs this month but the process is like learning, I don’t have discipline.
“This is the first time I’ve had to really build. One thing Punch has taught me is that when talent fails you, all you have is skill. So right now I can be Allen Iverson and not study and not try to build my craft and rely on raw talent and ability. But it will fail me eventually. Digging into the skill portion these past months has been incredible and the best experience ever. Growing up as an adult, instead of being a kid trying to Iverson it for the rest of my life.”
SZA: “Right now, I’m moving as fast as my brain is for once. Every idea I have, I’m actualizing it. This is the first time I’ve had to trust my gut 100% all the time.
“For a long time I thought that I would have a model to follow. Like there would be someone before me. I have no model for what I’m doing. That wasn’t on purpose because pioneering is shitty. I hate pioneering, most pioneers lose because they are forgotten and the person who learns their blueprint and knows how to do it better usually bodies them. It’s fucked up, I’m thinking to myself, ‘You got to pioneer but pioneer quick, don’t drag it out, you don’t have time for this fear shit. Cause a bitch with no fear will dead you, if you let her.’
I just fell into everything, this is so not the course that was suppose to happen. Even my parents are confused every day. ‘Who are you and where did you come from?’ It’s interesting to watch everyone get to know me all over again.
“I don’t even have time to figure out what audience I’m making music for. I can only make music based on what I want to do. I like Emile Haynie, Holy Other, Clams Casino, Toro Y Moi and I’m working with all these people and they all different. I like Hit-Boy, I love Wondagurl. I want to make music that reflects my imagination right now.
“After this project, there’s the album which I’m already thinking about putting an orangutan on the cover. I’m thinking about collaborations, which I want to keep slim with the exception of my team. I know I want Justin Bieber, I won’t rest until I do a song with Bieber.
“I might build a studio in Norway and disappear for a year but I’ll make the craziest album ever.I want to stay isolated so I don't kill my imagination. I love being by myself. I have social anxiety; the quitting comes from the fear which comes from the anxiety. So as long as I’m well isolated, which I am now, I’m fine. I can flourish if you leave me alone.
“The moment I start worrying about what party I’m going to or what outfit I’m wearing on Instagram, those kinds of things, I’ll fail. I know I will. I don't do well when I allow general population in my brain. I feel like my music might not be honest if I allow other things to cloud me. Isolation seems like utopia; it’s the best thing I could ever ask for. It’s messing up my social skills.
“This whole shit has been a reluctant progression but it’s just out of my own anxiety and being afraid to be in the public or part of someone else’s opinions. I don't like that and didn’t sign up for that, I signed up to make music and to build and get to know myself through the process of making music.
I feel like my music might not be honest if I allow other things to cloud me. Isolation seems like utopia; it’s the best thing I could ever ask for. It’s messing up my social skills.
“Now that I’m sharing it with others it’s a great thing but the day that I’m shitted on because of me sharing myself, will probably be the day that I’m over it. I didn’t want to do that to begin with and I hate that whole pedestal part of it, it has nothing to do with art to me. I had a breakdown like yesterday and was like, ‘I hate this shit and I don’t want to do this shit.’
“I just fell into everything, this is so not the course that was suppose to happen. Even my parents are confused every day. ‘Who are you and where did you come from?’ It’s interesting to watch everyone get to know me all over again. Even my closest friends are like, ‘You really made a run for it, huh?’ I guess I did and even when I look at myself, ‘I’m still doing this shit and it’s Wednesday, okay.’ Double-checking with myself because I’m such a pessimist, I’m afraid of it all going away. I never start shit I’m not sure I can win, I don't even play sports I can’t win. Anything I can’t excel at, I won't partake in.”