The whole world loves SZA’s fantastic, genre-hopping new album SOS, streaming it so relentlessly that she’s displaced Bad Bunny as Spotify’s number one artist on the planet.
But after five years between albums, that wasn’t the reception she expected. “I never thought in a million years that people would like it,” she says in a brand-new interview on the latest episode of our Rolling Stone Music Now podcast. “My dad’s visiting right now, with my mom. Everybody came down to make sure I didn’t lose my mind if the album went bad once it came out. And now we’re just hanging out, ’cause it didn’t go badly!”
To hear the whole episode, listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or press play above. Some highlights follow.
SZA reveals the main themes behind SOS. “I think this album was partially inspired by love lost, but mostly inspired by my departure from attempting to be a nice girl. I’ve tried to be a nice girl for so long and it’s just not who I am, inherently. And I think I’ve done nice things and I am a kind person, but I’m not a nice girl. And that’s okay. And I think coming to terms with that and really expanding upon that and exploring that is kind of like this new chapter in my life.”
It hasn’t been easy to find her own lane in music – and to keep carving it out. “If you remember, when I first came out, it was just Jhené Aiko, Tinashe, [FKA] Twigs,” says SZA. “Everyone was, like, fair-skinned and skinny. And then I came out and I jjust wasn’t any of those things. I still wanted to make interesting music and blah, blah, blah, but it was really hard and, and everybody was giving more like, ‘Who the fuck is this? And why are you here? And bring out Jhene,’ when I was opening for her. And that was hard. And I feel like people would approach Punch [the CEO of her label, TDE] often, like, ‘oh, well you should make her over.’… I didn’t see that there was anything wrong with being, you know, 200 pounds with baggy clothes and having all these like different emotions and displays of creativity. And I just never thought that anybody would be judging that. But they were, and it was strange. And I kind of of didn’t realize that until maybe I lost weight and then everyone was behaving so like differently and strange. My music didn’t really change. I don’t think it all had to do with my weight, but something happened [where] it was like, oh, maybe we should like try this as like a commercially acceptable idea. And even now I’m not sure where I fit in the grand scheme. I think people wanna see me like with my ass out and being hyper-feminine, and then they’re like, oh, ‘we know what this is and we like this.’ But when I revert to hockey-jersey SZA or I revert to baggy-clothes-on-SNL SZA , I’m not really sure. I don’t know. I prefer that people don’t know what to make of me, anyway. ‘Cause I just wanna be myself, without any expectations. And the best way to do that is to keep shapeshifting aggressively and often – sonically and otherwise.”
Some of the fearlessness of her lyrical revelations comes from boredom. “I have a very short attention span and I don’t medicate for ADHD or anything like that, which makes it really hard to function on other aspects of my life,” she says. “But it also makes me really bored, like, with everything. So for me to sit out on the album for five years and be working on it and not be bored, I have to start doing completely different things at random times. So it’s even the same thing with my own lyrics. It’s like, ‘ew, this is boring’ or ‘ew, or I said that already.’ I just try to think of what haven’t I said, and what am I hiding. I usually can tell what I’m hiding from myself or in general. And then I try to then say that, whether it’s a BBL [Brazilian butt lift – on the album’s title track, she raps, “So classic, that ass so fat, it look natural, it’s not”], whether it’s embarrassment about my ex, whether it’s shame, whether it’s insecurity, whatever it is…. Maybe that’s the only way that I’m not bored is to do, like, bizarre acts of self embarrassment.”
She can’t wait for her first-ever arena tour, which sold out instantly. “I’m really just excited to give people whatever they want,” she says. “Because I feel I’ve been gone for so long and people have been kind enough to watch me perform the same set for fucking five years, and that is really annoying, and I get that, and the patience and the love that they’ve shown me the whole way… I just wanna give them the craziest experience they could ever have and play whatever they want. Whether it’s unreleased songs that they thought they heard on the internet, or their favorite album cuts or fucking deep cuts from 2012, I don’t care. I just wanna give them what they deserve and make it beautiful. That’s my biggest goal, and I’m really excited and there’s nothing I enjoy more than being on stage and performing. It’s way different than this whole like, putting out shit on streaming and then watching people yell about it on Twitter. It’s way more human and it really makes it all worthwhile. To me, that makes it matter, ’cause we get to connect to people and make a difference in people’s lives and move energy around. And that’s magical to me for real.’
The album-making process was full of emotional low points. “It happened probably just a few times, like maybe up until the last week, when I texted [my label] and was like, ‘we don’t have to put this out. We could just pull out and move it to January. We can just let this go. And she’s like, ‘you can’t, you’re like, crowning..You can’t push the baby back in.’ I was like, ‘we can push the baby back in. We can!’ Even when I was [doing the] track listing, I was like, ‘Ugh, this shit is so boring’ or ‘it sucks,’ or when I couldn’t get some of the things I wanted for the initial cover idea or things weren’t working out, I’m like, ‘let’s just put it out with no cover and just leave everything blank.’ And then part of me was just like, I just wanna get it over with. I wanna meet my own fate. If n—- hate it, then great. I can never do music again. And I told my engineer, we’ll move to India and we’ll live on an ashram and we’ll take a vow of silence and that’s it… And it is also really scary that it didn’t go that way because I’m like, now what do I do? And what does this actually mean and when do the tides turn? When does everyone decide that they hate me again or that this sucks? And that’s unhealthy. That’s something I need to talk to my therapist about.”
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