SZA's Soft Focus Soul Slips Into the Background on 'Z'

6
Z
Reviews
Release Date: April 8, 2014
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment

by Brandon Soderberg

From the kush-cloudy quiet storm production to the vague references to what may or may not be emotional turmoil, everything is just out of reach on SZA's Z, including SZA herself. The neo-neo soulster remains guarded throughout, her witty moments of lyrical specificity ("Your skin tastes like Brussels sprouts") tempered by typically embattled pop music platitudes ("Bring on the thorned crown/ Crucify me"). This album is willfully ambivalent: "Babylon" sits between Ginuwine's experimental pop-classic "Pony" and Rihanna's cloying, chintzy, oh-so-2012 "Pony" interpolation "Jump." "Hiijack," produced by Toro Y Moi, is half George Duke, half dubstep. Even the highlights -- the stunning "Julia," which gives Haim a run for their retrolicious money, and "Sweet November," a smokey, witty riff on the Marvin Gaye rarity "Mandota" that finds SZA sounding worldly-wise -- are steeped in musical precedents.

This hesitancy could be explained by the fact that, despite releasing two previous albums (2012's See.SZA.Run and last year's S), SZA is primarily operating as a kind of atmospheric hook-woman right now, blessing blunted tracks by fellow Top Dawg Entertainment newbie Isaiah Rashad ("Ronnie Drake" and "West Savannah") and T.D.E. capo ScHoolboy Q ("His and Her Friend"). Z is very much a record put together by someone whose main responsibility right now is holding another artist's song together. The hooks here are bold and obliquely catchy (the goth-hop of "Shattered Ring," "Omega"), yet all the other elements melt into the background, which yeah yeah yeah, is the point of this type of weeded R&B, but even seductive production and artful sequencing (this is a T.D.E. release, after all) can't make up for a dearth of compelling content.

SZA seems to thrive as a uniting force, there to support stellar stand out verses from Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar (who've both been kind of coasting lately) and riding impressive production on "UR" and "Warm Winds" from frat-rapper-in-transition Mac Miller, who proves that when he grows tired of being a rap bro with a third eye he can be one of the new guard's most exciting beatmakers. SZA isn't lost when sharing a song with big names, but she doesn't seem interested in pulling them entirely into her own world either. And though that can be frustrating, it's still preferable to being a cipher like the similarly soft-voiced Cassie, or cast as an emotional enabler the way the equally floaty Jhene Aiko was on Drake's "From Time."

Given Z's askew atmospherics, its highlight is, appropriately enough, the gentle outro to the track "Green Mile," which finds SZA self-aware, singing, "Lately I've been questioning, am I all that I pretend to be?/ I doubt it, I doubt it," over galloping, twinkling boom-bap. It's an artistic statement in and of itself, and a thrilling moment of real talk fragility missing elsewhere.

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