In the fall of 2016, SZA was so frustrated with the progress of her career that she claimed to have quit her label TDE, tweeting that Terrence “Punch” Henderson, the label’s president, could release her debut album “if he ever feels like it.” Of course, we now know how that went: SZA was one of the year’s out-of-nowhere breakout stars, landing two top 40 hits and a five Grammy nominations at a time when R&B as a genre finds itself at something of a crossroads, cordoned off from the glaring whiteness of pop radio but also not being able to use streaming services as a throttle to accelerate the cultural zeitgeist.
SZA has plenty of time to figure out where to go from here—how to write songs to position herself where she wants, whether that’s as a crossover pop star (she guests rather anonymously on Maroon 5’s rather anonymous “What Lovers Do”) or something smaller but more manageable and perhaps more freeing. As far as pop success goes, maybe it doesn’t hurt to see—that seems to be the feeling, at least, in “All the Stars,” a new single with Kendrick Lamar from the Black Panther soundtrack that firmly situates SZA in the timeline of contemporary pop’s revival of chugging, mid tempo ‘80s synth-pop, right next to songs like Justin Bieber’s “Friends” and Halsey’s “Strangers.”
“All the Stars” is about as good as both of those songs, neither of which were hits of any magnitude for either artist but were pleasing enough, the sort of single you wouldn’t switch stations on but wouldn’t exactly be hunting to switch stations to, either. There is some personality here, though, mainly in SZA’s vocals, where vowels and constants melt together to form sentences that are shaped and sculptured. On Ctrl this method of singing could sometimes be distracting, but on “All the Stars” it gives a song that is almost purposefully generic certain contours that don’t exist on those other likeminded compositions.
And anyway, context matters. “All the Stars” isn’t exactly a great SZA song, but it could be an important one in the story of her career—the time when she used a song from a movie soundtrack to see how pop fits on her. The song might be more interesting to think about than to listen to, but it is interesting nonetheless.