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With 5 Grammy nods, SZA emerges as music’s breakout star

Singer SZA poses for a portrait in New York to promote her latest album, “Ctrl.” (Victoria Will / Associated Press)
Singer SZA poses for a portrait in New York to promote her latest album, “Ctrl.” (Victoria Will / Associated Press)
By Mesfin Fekadu Associated Press

NEW YORK – After SZA created the drums-drenched, reggae-tinged song “Consideration,” she thought she had finally found the sound of her debut album. But there was one problem: Rihanna heard the song and wanted it.

“And I’m just like, ‘It has a video. I shot a video already to it. It’s coming out on Wednesday. That was going to be the first song to prep the album,’ ” SZA recalled in a recent interview.

Rihanna kept SZA as a featured artist on the track, which opens her critically acclaimed “Anti” album, released last year. And while SZA said recording with the pop star “was a learning experience, it was just dope” – as for her own project? She felt lost. She cried like a baby. She was devastated. She had never given away something she cared so much about.

“I was crying (and thinking), ‘I’ll never make anything better,’ ” said SZA, now 28. “And Kendrick (Lamar) was like, ‘Well, this is what separates great people. Because great people make better things than that.’ ”

SZA proved herself to be great – and also proved her earlier prediction wrong.

The songs that make up “Ctrl,” her major-label debut released in June nominated for five Grammy Awards, have resonated with fans around the world, making SZA both a critical darling and a commercial success. The album is at the forefront of the alternative R&B movement, with SZA earning praise for her vocal delivery and direct lyrics that both female and male fans vibe to.

“My favorite game to play at her shows is finding the tough guy, the straight dude who doesn’t want to show no emotion, and as soon as his song comes on, he loses his mind,” said Terrence “Punch” Henderson, the co-president of independent record label Top Dawg Entertainment, home to SZA and Lamar.

“She’s the voice of this generation right now,” he added. “The words she’s saying is honest and raw (and) she’s speaking for these girls and also these guys.”

On some of her songs, SZA fires off her lyrics more like a rapper than a singer – switching topics quickly as she talks about having sex, failed relationships, persevering in life and if being herself is enough.

“I’m so ashamed of myself think I need therapy,” she even sings on “Normal Girl.”

The hit “The Weekend” is about sharing a boyfriend and SZA wonders if her body type is enough for her lover on “Garden (Say It Like Dat).” She asks for “another Valium” on “Love Galore,” where she also sings, “Why you bother me when you know you got a woman?” Smoking weed is peppered throughout the album – and on this particular day, a week after Grammy nominations, joy was in the air, along with the smell of marijuana.

Issa Rae was such a fan that the actress and producer used much of “Ctrl’ in the second season of her acclaimed comedy series “Insecure” on HBO.

“SZA’s album is so good and just even thematically for season two, it’s so odd that we could literally put the whole album in,” Rae said. “If I get a cut of an episode and the music isn’t right, it takes me out of it. I’ll be like, ‘This episode is trash.’ (Music) really guides so much of the feel of the show and it has to be perfect.”

“Ctrl,” which has achieved gold status, has launched two platinum singles with “Love Galore” and “The Weekend,” recently remixed by Calvin Harris. The project was named the No. 1 album of the year by several critics, including Time, Vice, New York Daily News and The Associated Press; it was ranked No. 2 by the New York Times, NPR, Pitchfork and Billboard.

The success makes SZA, who appeared in an ad for Rihanna’s ultra-successful Fenty makeup line, the belle of the Grammys – she’s the most nominated female act.

“You know what’s crazy? I feel like you’re never as good as people say you are. And you’re never as bad as people say you are. So, it’s like, you just gotta take it like with a grain of salt. Like, it’s an experience. A responsibility more so. I think it’s like a knock on the head. Like, you have a responsibility, you have a purpose, so it’s like, uh, get to work and focus,” she said.

SZA’s nominations include best new artist and best urban contemporary album for “Ctrl.” Three of her songs also earned nominations – the Travis Scott-assisted “Love Galore” (best rap/sung performance); the fan-favorite “The Weekend” (best R&B performance); and album opener “Supermodel” (best R&B song).

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