SZA | A Secret Garden at Wilshire and Park View
“Glenn Close is my bitch, too.”
Solána “SZA” Rowe just wrapped a four-hour photo shoot at Gothic Revival landmark The MacArthur here in Los Angeles. Now tucked away in a makeshift dressing room, she’s cozy and happily free of glam for the rest of the evening. In an oversized fuchsia Champion sweatshirt, baggy blue pants, and velvet Gucci slippers, the Alt-R&B singer has just finished off a Shake Shack chicken sandwich as we talk about movie stars and TV characters she has connected with throughout her 27 years.
1987’s Fatal Attraction with Close (who plays fanatic home-wrecker Alex) is a classic film she can’t shake. ”She has a gorgeous bizarre face that has so much depth and emotion,” SZA says. “Watching her in all white? She looks so beautiful and ethereal. So gorgeous.” The Wizard of Oz is another favorite. “Dorothy is like an interdimensional traveler, almost within herself,” the singer says. “I really connected with the Lion the most. Those movies always touch me in the weirdest ways. I cried watching that.”
Avid SZA fans know her worship of cinema and its stars to be as real as her top is bright. Her songs are peppered with scenes and references to classics and their leading ladies. On her critically acclaimed debut album Ctrl, one track is called “Drew Barrymore.” Another features lines that allude to the moment when a tornado throws Dorothy’s house onto the Wicked Witch of the East in Oz. She’s a fan of Julia Roberts (who she once named a mixtape tune after), too. “She has great lips, hair, and skin,” SZA says. “And a quirky smile. Pretty Woman is my favorite movie. I took notes on that movie.”
“I want the fairytale.”
—Pretty Woman’s Vivian Ward
SZA always knew she’d live a lavish Hollywood life. She’d fantasize about what she hoped would be a “grand experience.” No, she didn’t grow up in poverty—quite the opposite. Her dad was an executive producer at CNN, her mom an AT&T exec. Born in St. Louis, hers was a suburban upbringing in a Maplewood, New Jersey house. Still, “I knew I just wanted more,” she says. “Everybody wants more than what they grew up in. So I wanted my dream house.” How she would get it, she wasn’t sure.
“I thought I’d be a scientist, traveling around the world on some etymology shit,” SZA says. “Or working for Greenpeace. Or working in an animal conservatory. Or working at a law firm with a popping corner office and a Porsche. Maybe fashion. Marketing or advertising. I just knew that I was going to have a large gate and a dog that I loved.” Her own Toto. “I always knew that. It’s just what I required in that regard. My dreams were too strong. And I need the things I dream about.”
GIAMBATTISTA VALLI HAUTE COUTURE dress, CHANEL earrings and bracelets, and talent’s own rings (worn throughout).
SZA went to college at Delaware State University, studying marine biology. She then transferred to another school in the tri-state area to be closer to her then boyfriend before eventually dropping out. She certainly didn’t see a music career in her cards. SZA had only flirted with her gift of song before her rapper brother Daniel (who went by MNHATTN) asked her to sing hooks on his mixtape tracks during her early twenties. That would finally result in her creating some for herself, mixtapes with enough Soundcloud and social media buzz to land her a deal with L.A.-based label Top Dawg Entertainment, the home of rap wizard Kendrick Lamar.
“I hate having my face attached to my life,” SZA says now. Show business is seemingly best suited for those who’ve never lacked in the confidence department, and SZA’s had issues there since she was young. She jokes about how every day should be like ‘90s high school sitcom Saved by the Bell, but confesses that she was far from similar to its it-girl stars Kelly or Lisa—much more Screech-like.
“At 15 I was rough,” she says. “Lost. I was trying to dress like everybody else, be cool. But I didn’t have any friends. 16 was really shitty. Just a mess. I was unhappy and deeply unliked.” Being captain of the gymnastics team was no solace. SZA was bullied and suffered from self-loathing. “What are friends and why can’t I have any?” she’d ponder, along with wondering if her brand of bubbly awkwardness could ever fit the mold she saw her favorite artist tap for his videos. “It just so happened that being weird ended up being cool during the Pharrell [Williams, of production duo The Neptunes] era, like, ‘Weird bitches may be alright—if you’re bad.’ So I wondered if I fit that type. I was just by my fucking self.”
Ctrl is a coming of age story in its own right. On it she shares intimate tales and moments of feeling neglected by a decade’s worth of loves, frustrated by stagnation, and aimless. The set wraps with a cut that unites yet-to-be-accomplished twenty-somethings.
Today, it appears things have changed a bit. Ctrl is certified platinum. Singles “Love Galore” and “The Weekend” share the same distinction. SZA’s tracks boasts over a billion streams worldwide. She just wrapped the sold-out Ctrl tour, slayed performances on late night TV and SNL, and even ripped the 2018 Grammy stage (unfortunately walking away with none of the five awards she was nominated for) along the way.
SZA’s currently surrounded by a crew of girlfriends she’s had for nearly a decade. She eagerly shares a story about free-climbing a mountain with bestie Lee, who’s off to her left. Sage, who shot Ctrl’s lo-fi album art, just strolled in. And each time something funny distracts SZA on her iPhone she shares it with Amber, who is currently rolling up a joint for crew rotation. But don’t think that it’s all smiles and high times for SZA.
“I’m still sad,” she tells me. I wonder if she’s dealing with any sort of writer’s block, the type that hits artists who’ve attained success on their debut releases and then are zapped of inspiration. “What’s the sophomore jinx?” she asks, as if hearing about a contagious virus for the first time. I feel a bit guilty for bringing negative vibes to serene SZA. “Where people have a bad sophomore album?” Bingo. She hasn’t started crafting new material yet, “but I’ve been talking shit to myself on different topics every day for the last week, which is typically how I start—coming up with little catchphrases in the car on the way home, and I’ll be like, ‘Cute.’ Then I’ll be like, ‘I think I’m ready to write and start recording.’”
After listing peers like Frank Ocean, label-mate Lamar, and more who came strong on round two, she assures me that she too will rise above. “I’m still miserable,” she says. “My world got so much smaller so fast. I have so much to write about. I feel like I’m in a cage. I’m making the best album of my life for this next album and I know that... because it’s going to be my last album.”
Let’s not take that “last” part too seriously. She delivered it with a grin and has been known to flirt with the idea of early retirement. Even before Ctrl dropped, the stress of expectation got to her so much that she tweeted “I actually quit.” Now she thinks, “God didn’t give me the Grammys, because he knows I would have quit, like ‘I have nothing else to do.’”
DIOR bodysuit and skirt, BALENCIAGA shoes, and CHROME HEARTS earrings.
Self-loathing isn’t an issue for her anymore. But before she gets into the thick of her second album, SZA will attack her insecurities and depression issues head-on. She already seems to be well studied on the subject.
“To be woefully insecure is an expression of selfishness, because you think everything is about you,” she says. “You’re now interpreting everybody’s movements and thoughts in the room as a worst-case scenario based on you, which is low-key crazy and highly egoic. It’s really based on self-esteem and the fact that you don’t think you’re good enough. It’s just twisted. I started to feel worse about myself for behaving that way.” I quip about how depression presents double and triple negatives like that: first, you’re down on yourself, then you’re down on yourself for what it means to be so down on yourself. We laugh the pitifulness of it all.
“I just decided to focus on other shit,” she says, “and I started working on my inner self—how I feel, and regulating my energy. And then the world around me got better.” She’s been meditating regularly since October. A hardheaded one, she had to exhaust all the other options before giving in to friends’ suggestions and trying it. “When you’re at your real wit’s end,” SZA starts, “you’ve got to acknowledge God and have a transcendence. And God really held me down.”
Next up is entering anger management, where her goal when she hopefully starts soon isn’t grand. She simply wants to turn all-out fits into smaller ones. “Failing softly,” she calls it while shrugging her shoulders. “Instead of throwing a full tantrum, you have, like, a quarter tantrum.” Recognizing her ability to go from beaming with joy to enviable cool to becoming a sad sack of pensive potatoes, I think of another character she’s shouted out in song: Disney cartoon tween Pepper Ann.
“Pepper Ann is me,” she yelps. “She’s so calamity-filled. But very cool.” I ask if she’s “her own biggest fan” like a line from its theme song goes. “No!” she responds, and then she corrects me. “Do you think she means that?” She’s quick to point out that the lyrics of the opener are a superb example of self-deprecation. When Pepper Ann sings of loving everything about herself, she’s really saying she doesn’t. “People who aren’t confident in themselves are always satirizing themselves,” she says. “The funniest people are either the most depressed or insecure.” It’s worth noting that SZA’s had her crew in stitches all night. She goes down a morbid list of comedy’s well-known sad men who have either suffered from or succumbed to their despair. “Robin Williams, Jim Carrey...”
As she floats into the night, one place SZA surely isn’t going is to bed. She’s putting the finishing touches on the deluxe version of Ctrl, which she says will have new tracks and function as an epilogue of sorts on that chapter of her career. In a few weeks, she’ll rock at Coachella and then join Lamar, Schoolboy Q, and the rest of TDE for The Championship Tour at the top of May.
And that picture perfect house? The young queen is searching for her Los Angeles palace now. Though her fantasies are slowly coming true, there’s still much to realize. And with a dreamy place to rest her head, maybe she too will find peace of mind.
Written by Brad Weté Brad | Wete.
Photographer: Amanda Charchian at Katy Baker Ltd.
Flaunt Film Director: Samuel J. Roberts
Stylist: Dianne Garcia.
Hair: Randy Stodghill using Number 4 Hair Care at Opus Beauty.
Makeup: Paul Blanch using Pat McGrath Cosmetics at Opus Beauty.
Styling Assistants: Lisa Li and Ruby Bravo.
Location: The MacArthur.