by Marco de Vita

Let’s start with a premise. Z is an album that can’t be labeled. It’s R&B, sure, but it’s a lot of other things too. SZA, real name Solana Rowe, has crafted a debut album that sounds both familiar and fresh, escaping most of the genre’s cliches and faux-pas while at the same time keeping an old air of familiarity, firmly seated in the R&B genre and aided by a spectacular voice that could well carry the whole thing with no instrumental aid. After the EP ‘S‘ comes the album proper, with a promised third installment to fully spell her artistic name, SZA has been on everyone’s to-watch list for 2014 and releasing an album under such spotlight can have a more negative effect that one might like. The pressure of living up to expectations, of delivering a consistent album that can appeal upon the first listen is something that is always rather unreasonably asked of up-and-coming artists. So let’s forget, if only for a minute, the Standard of Quality and Expectations of the Blogger Community and instead focus on the experience itself that this little gem of an album can offer.

There is a bit for everyone here, as the album opens with two solidly produced tracks by Mac Miller and XXYYXX. Both ‘UR’ and ‘Childs Play’ are heavily atmospheric tunes, much gentler than you might expect, serving as a spectacular trampoline for the real protagonist – Solana herself. Her voice, smoky but at the same time smooth as warm caramel, skates upon a velvet rink of soft instrumentals that simply wouldn’t be able to keep up with her prowess even if they wanted to. Everything sounds incredibly intimate and gentle, at times even sensual and alluring – but most of all it somehow fits every situation. Its soundscape will evolve your existence whether it’s winter or summer, snowing or shining. It’s gorgeous. Admittedly it’s a very slow start for a debut album that might surprise a few, but upon a couple of listens you will start to appreciate just how truly perfect these two tracks are at setting up the album.

The tempo picks up a bit later on, as is the case with ‘Julia‘, delving more into pop territory. It’s the first sign that this album is going to surprise you – every track is unique, nothing sounds alike. You could argue this is the highest point achieved by Solana, having already acquired her own distinct style even though she might jump from influence to influence. That voice of hers acts as the glue between all the different styles, producers and collaborators. You just know it’s SZA when you hear it. Solana herself most likely figured this out as she chooses rather well a set of excellent producers to work with, before Mac Miller, now Toro Y Moi in ‘HiiiJack‘, Chaz Bundwick’s touch instantly recognisable, it’s a whole different category than the start of the album, yet it works so well.

On the other hand, it’s not just producers who feature heavily on Z, but also rappers in the form of Solana’s fellow label mates. Signed to TDE, she is now bumping elbows with the likes of Chance The Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, Isaiah Rashad (all appearing on the album) and more. Guest rap verses seem inescapable in the world of R&B and sometimes they do help to lift up the track a bit or help it get notoriety. In this case, however, I can’t help but wonder whether it wouldn’t have been best to simply let Solana do her thing on her own. While both Chance and Isaiah just about deliver on ‘Child’s Play‘ and ‘Warm Winds‘, respectively, the biggest surprise (or rather, disappointment), comes from the biggest name of the label, Mr. Kendrick Lamar himself. ‘Babylon‘ was first released as a single with no appearance from the rapper, and it was a belter of a track, a perfect showcase for Solana’s word smith-ery and poignant delivery. In the album version of the song, however, we find there’s a guest verse from Kendrick, slapped at the very beginning in a place that doesn’t quite belong for him or anyone else – and it does more harm than good. “I can’t recall the last time I took advice from anyone / Shaped like a figure eight who trusts pretty girls anyway?” Stuff like that is exactly why Solana doesn’t need anyone else on the track; it sounds lush and epic with razor sharp lyrics.

Z might not be an instant favourite for many, but much like its cover art, reminiscent of old packaging for camphor oil or other unguents, it quickly becomes a classic that will win you over further with each listen. After all, we’re talking about an orthodox muslim with an Ivy League education who went on to bar-tend at a strip club. Now, without believing it too much herself, she’s the hottest name in the game. And rightly so.

Z‘ is out now on TDE.

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