SZA walks into New York City’s VYNL dressed like she just left her dorm and was heading to lunch in “the quad,” complete with boxer shorts, tube socks, a t-shirt, and flip-flops. Her hair is in perfect chaos, her makeup-free face looks airbrushed. She’s radiant. The siren of hip-hop’s current powerhouse Top Dawg Entertainment (led by de-facto frontman Kendrick Lamar) just got back from doing gymnastics at Chelsea Piers. It’s been a passion of hers since her New Jersey childhood; even when the 23-year-old briefly covered her hair with a hijab as a teen (her father is Muslim), she rocked those somersaults cloaked in precision. That pretty much sums up SZA as a whole. She’s an artist who slides into the popular landscape, slightly altered, yet twice as talented. Last year, SZA catapulted onto the scene with a handful of buzz tracks, including the woozy “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” full of airy angst. There’s a lot going on in her beautiful mind, yet she struggles with that first adjective. Beautiful. It’s not something she’s used to hearing, when she grew up around bullies who chided her uniqueness. Now she’s fresh to death and ready to drop her debut full-length, following a series of EP releases, including her most recent Z. Here she discusses her pathway to greatness, her personal style, and finally clears up those rumors about a beef with TDE affiliate Jhene Aiko.
So you’ve been doing gymnastics since you were a kid, right?
Yeah, for like 13 years. But now I’m just fat and trying to enjoy myself without anyone knowing who I am except for the coaches that curse me out.
What were you like as a child gymnast?
I was super competitive. My dad is very competitive, so it was everything. That was all I did. I went to gymnastics camp, and I did like ten gym hours a day, and then they gave you two hours of free time, which turned into two hours of more gym time. I would go all Summer. I don’t have any discipline. I just do things I love – only things I love. And I LOVE gymnastics, I don’t know why! It was just random. I could break my neck at any moment, but oh well!
The fact that you still did gymnastics covered in a hijab is pretty badass though.
When I got older, like in high school, I started covering again. So I was in high school going from like, being regular to covering up. Well, I was never like super scantily-clad, but I’ve definitely done the ass out, nipple slip outfit before. But, I definitely started doing a turtleneck all over again. Turtleneck, leggings…and they take away points for that in gymnastics!
Are you serious?
Yeah. The whole point is like, you get points for your leotard – like what kind of leotard you have – because they need to see your form. If you wear things that block your form, then it takes away from it.
When you were going into your first project, you were in a really emotionally transitional phase, and you were covering things that were a little dark. Where are you now?
I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing here and what’s the point in everything. I think this album that I’m working on now is going to be with more purpose, though. Like I know what I want and I can execute it the right way, instead of winging it.
What was your thought process going into the second EP, Z?
I was lost, trying to find myself. I just threw shit out on SoundCloud. Like, no one was watching me so it didn’t matter. But this time, it’s just so weird. Some people are like, “Oh I wish it sounded like S [the first EP].” But I’m in such a different place right now. I’m really trying to build it out. I feel like Z was a transitional period – like I’m growing up – working with live instrumentation. Towards the end of Z, the process was just all of that. Now, I’m just trying to really build in a real way, like firm scaffolding. I want to take my time.
Do you feel like there’s an added pressure now because all ears are really on you? You’re opening for Coldplay now.
Well live is a different thing. I love performing live. All my music sounds different live, because I have a bass player, keyboarders, a drummer and a DJ. So it creates a different sound and then I can like, build it out. I’m very confident singing live. It’s just a different thing. My voice sounds completely different than it does on wax – in a good way – so I think that’s something I want to do more. I wish I could do an unplugged version of the whole project. I feel like that would give it real life.
Ooh, like Erykah Badu.
Her fine ass. We need to find Lauryn Hill. I just want to like, lay on her lap for an hour and cry about my life. I really do. She don’t even know! We went to the same high school, from the same town, lived the same life! I just want to like, love her and I want her to love me.
Are you like the hometown hero for your town now? I mean, Lauryn was the first round.
I have to do so much more. That’s why I want to do a live version of my album and record it and put it out on SoundCloud. I’m dead ass. I’m not in the business of trying to be an “it” girl. I just want people to respect me as an artist and for my ambition and just be moved by it.
People are kind of pitting you against Jhene Aiko, who was also down with TDE. It’s interesting that they don’t pit any of the men in TDE against each other, so why can’t there be two women in the same space?
First of all, there’s way more than two of us! There’s like seven women doing awesome stuff, way more than me and Jhene. But, I think it’s the familiarity. It’s the familiarity, the association with TDE and like, she makes unisex music and talks about smoking and niggas. I think I have a unisex vibe too, but I’m sure we’ll separate from each other in a very natural, organic way. Our music is just very different, and I think over time – very shortly – people will see how truly different it is. I’ve met her. Everything was chill. It was only one time and I was like mildly rude, but I had just woken up from a nap so I wasn’t the sweetest. I’m a bitch if I’m sleepy, dude.
You were super aware of taking pictures early on, but now I see a lot more pictures of you floating around. Was that something that you had to adjust to?
I quit. I was just like, fuck it. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t avoid it. I don’t know, it’s just weird now. I definitely cried through most of it, like trying to avoid all of it, but eventually I had to stop doing that. I just kept letting people take pictures of me, and I eventually had to get over it.
Are you more comfortable now?
No. I want to be portrayed the way I want to be portrayed, and like, I had a photo shoot the other day where they dressed me like a fucking hip-hop princess but like…from 2001. Awful! So it’s those things that make me uncomfortable. Like [holds up nails painted with bottles of Old English beer on them] these are the remnants of my Old English photo shoot.
Wait, were you holding OE? Were you holding a 40?!
I was. I was so mad.
So how do you feel when people refer to you as “beautiful” publicly?
So bizarre! I’m used to being weird-looking so I never kind of got that. I feel like a fucking freak. I went through all of high school like, avoiding roast sessions at the lunch table because I didn’t want to be called ugly.
Did you finally realize at all that you are beautiful?
No. I have to avoid going out sometimes because it’s like, anxiety plus low self-esteem equals a total shit-show every time I leave the house.
So how much do you struggle with fashion magazines or publications trying to style you?
I mean, I’m like a size 11 in clothes so it’s hilarious. They always give me a size 4 or a size 6, and then I can only get like an ankle in so, that’s awkward. But I don’t know, it’s funny. I bring a lot of my own clothes just in case because I know how it’s going to go. I bring my own makeup, my own hair tools, my own clothes. I’m honored that they even want to shoot me at all, but it’s that embarrassing moment of feeling like a fucking sausage that happens when something is really tight and doesn’t fit.
What’s your personal style like?
I like comfiness. Everything is loose. I get a Large in everything, no matter who makes it. These are men’s shorts.
You love shorts.
I hate my legs, but I love shorts. I like to be free! I really think I would wear a muumuu all day. I don’t know; I feel like personal style is all about comfortability. With style, one person I really respect is that girl Sarah Richardson from i-D. She’s like the holy grail of FINE. She’s so pretty. Sometimes when I’m bored, I just Google her. She’s so fly. Who else? Lauryn Hill is so awesome. Phylicia Rashad.
Lauryn Hill is your style icon?
Bitch dresses amazing!
Both! I’m with it. I love it all. But it’s her, though. Style is forever; fashion is fleeting. It’s the hair, the colors, it’s everything. Then she like, moved on and went from like suede and a lot of leather accessories and now she’s in this like very flowy, very dark look. Her makeup is flawless. I love it. It speaks to her personality without being cookie-cutter.
Who are some other artists you listen to?
I don’t listen to much other music. I’m more of a film person than I am music. I like a lot of films. Listening to music takes forever for me. Like I can scroll through it when I’m like, running, but I can’t just listen regularly. Music is just different for me. I’m a visual type of girl.
What’s the last movie you saw?
She’s Gotta Have It for like the millionth time. I love that movie. I’d watch that movie like, every day of my life.
Does it speak to your life, or it’s just because you want to?
No, I’m not a whore [laughs].
I mean like a certain memory attached to your life!
Spike Lee speaks to every part of me. He’s so ill. It’s awesome that all of his films are still relevant. But She’s Gotta Have It was like a school project of his originally, so it’s in all black and white and it’s very cool. Spike Lee is amazing.
Would you ever do acting?
I don’t think so. Well maybe not never but, I don’t think so.
Would you direct?
Yes! I’m kind of getting into that. Like, I directed the video for “Babylon.” I’m a huge Wes Anderson fan, and I’m getting into like Pantone color correction, pallets and all that shit so, I’m going to get into direction for real.
Do you have a Pantone notebook?
No, that shit is very expensive! But I’m going to buy one.