The California based hip-hop collective Top Dawg Entertainment is already known for some of the hottest emerging hip-hop artists in the game. With the successful releases of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, M.A.A.D. City, Schoolboy Q’s Oxymoron, and Isaiah Rashad’s Cilvia Demo all in the last year, the label has made a permanent mark on the rap game. With the recent signing of 23-year-old Maplewood, N.J. native Solana Rowe, better known as “SZA,” the collective extends its reach to the genre of R&B. Just eight months after signing with TDE, SZA releases Z, her first major label EP, and the third installment in Top Dawg’s planned release of six albums in 2014. The electro R&B record features 10 extremely well-produced tracks; guest appearances from independent Chicago artist Chance the Rapper and label-mates Kendrick Lamar and Isaiah Rashad; as well as powerful, enchanting vocals from SZA that will have you hitting the replay button over and over again.
A year ago, SZA was less focused on music, as she was more occupied with her work at the popular cosmetic chain, Sephora, in New York City. Twelve short months later, and the artist is working with some of the most widely appreciated artists and producers in the music industry. She first made contact with Terrence Henderson, president of Top Dawg Entertainment, at a Lamar show that her boyfriend’s clothing company sponsored. Henderson heard some of her stuff and was immediately intrigued. Shortly thereafter, a contract was signed, and SZA was officially added to the Top Dawg Entertainment roster.
When considering the rest of the Top Dawg crew, SZA seems like somewhat of an anomaly. Being the first singer, the first female, and the first East Coast native to become a member of the collective, SZA is a noticeably different animal than the others in her pack. While some difference exists between her and her label mates, it did not stop her from creating a remarkable debut album-capitalizing on the innovative production techniques of Top Dawg.
Every track on the album can be described as a success, and the variety of sound demonstrated throughout the compilation shows off SZA’s tremendous versatility. The album begins with “Ur,” a slow-moving, emotional track produced by rapper Mac Miller, and quickly moves into a more upbeat, energetic set of songs. The third track, “Julia,” has a spirited, up-tempo beat that pairs beautifully with SZA’s entrancing voice. The song has true potential to become a hit, as its danceable, energetic vibe makes it appeal quite broad. The most intimate moment of the album comes on the track “Green Mile,” in which SZA describes the difficult ending of a relationship. The dark, shady beat sets SZA up perfectly to describe this “massacre” of love, through meaningful lyrics and emotionally-driven vocals.
The true highlights of the album, however, are the two songs that garnered the most hype before the record’s release: “Child’s Play” featuring Chance the Rapper and “Babylon” featuring Lamar. “Child’s Play”-produced by XXYXX-is a smooth hypnotic track with SZA’s gorgeous voice putting listeners in a trance. Chance adds one of his signature spastic verses with incredibly sharp lyrics, filled with double entendres and thought-provoking references. The song concludes with the two artists working in a true collaborative style-balancing vocals, reminiscing about the past.
Those who noticed SZA’s label mate Lamar featured on her track “Babylon” likely assumed that Lamar, as he often does, would dominate the track-yet SZA is the main attraction on this selection. The track’s eerie interlude sets her up to absolutely crush the song with an infectious chorus and striking melody. Kendrick adds a pensive, minute-long verse that supplements the track beautifully.
With her first major-label release Z, SZA independently proves that Top Dawg is no longer just an all-male, all-rap label. Her hypnotizing and captivating voice adds another layer of awesome to the collective. While just 10 tracks long, Z serves as a remarkable debut album, showing great promise for SZA’s career.