Thursday, April 10, 2014

album review: 'z' by sza

A few weeks back when I talked about Young Money, I made the statement that they were probably one of the few rap groups that had a consistent record in launching unique solo careers, at least in terms of chart success and the popular consciousness. Between Lil Wayne, Drake, Nicki Minaj, and to a lesser extent Tyga, Young Money managed to have a lot of commercial success, especially in the past five or six years - and up until very recently, a fair amount of critical success as well.

Well, okay, that might be overstating it, because of the group only Drake has proven to be the consistent critical darling, with increasingly uneven output from his peers, and their label collaboration album Young Money: Rise of An Empire being not exactly stellar - or, you know, good. No, if I want to look for more consistent critical acclaim, I've been looking more towards Top Dawg Entertainment, an independent hip-hop record label that's been getting some serious critical buzz over the last few years, especially after the release of good kid, m.a.a.d city by Kendrick Lamar. In terms of business expertise, I find a lot more to like with Top Dawg, mostly because unlike Young Money, they're working hard on establishing a relatively small stable of solid rappers before recruiting additional talent. And while I'm not the biggest Ab-Soul fan, I've been pretty impressed by the work they've done with Kendrick, Schoolboy Q, and especially Jay Rock.

But earlier this year they announced they were signing two new artists: Isaiah Rashad and SZA, the latter of which is an R&B singer influenced by 80s synthpop and soul. And as the only female artist on Top Dawg at the moment, I was curious how her material would be shaped from that label and I made it a priority to check out her full-length debut Z. How did it turn out?

Goddamn it, I want to like this album a lot more than I do - because make no mistakes, Z by SZA has an absolutely fascinating concept and a daring one for a debut album, and a lot of text and subtext that if executed properly could have made for a damn near brilliant album discussing feminist themes, inner peace and depression. The problem, though, is execution, where the album opts to mishandle a genre fusion and at multiple points let SZA be overshadowed by her guest stars, which ends up turning a potentially great album into one that barely touches decent.

So let's talk about that text I find so fascinating. I will say this, SZA does run against tropes in R&B and explore a lot of interesting material with a few, well-chosen words, and there's definitely a strong arc throughout this record, how she begins her search for inner peace and eventually finds it after self-doubt, exposing her sins, confronting those who have hurt her, and even a slide towards a much more depressing ending. And there's a lot of phenomenal imagery on this album that I really found compelling - the childhood reflection in 'Child's Play' was so intriguing from SZA's perspective that I almost wish Chance The Rapper hadn't showed up at all! 'Warm Winds' takes a Forrest Gump metaphor and fuses it with a pretty solid internal dialogue, and 'Green Mile' takes that internal conflict and spells it out in appropriately bloody terms. The self-loathing on display really manifests in 'Babylon', where she goads Kendrick to confront his own demons before attacking her, but then again, throughout her next two songs 'Sweet November' and 'Shattered Ring', she seems set on a pretty definitive path of self-destruction, either through bad relationships or pointlessly reckless behaviour. 

And then it hit me: this is an album about death, likely suicide from depression. It's an album that exposes SZA's vulnerabilities to the world and then has the world reject them in turn. It's an album that actively uses metaphors of escape and endings, in both album and track titles and the metaphors. And yet at the very end, on 'Omega', she finds solace in God and realizes that the only one who needs to see that vulnerability is him and she makes her peace. And in comparison with the defiantly atheist depression tract from Nine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral, it's a very different portrait that on paper really has a lot of dramatic weight.

The problem is in execution - and to be fair, you can tell they were trying here, a fusion of modern neo soul and hip-hop with the sharp-edged synthpop vibes of the early 80s. And there are moments that get close to working - the glittering keyboards on 'Julia', the gothic swell of 'Green Mile', the menacing guitar on 'Shattered Ring', these moments are pretty potent. But the rest of this album is swallowed in reverb, echo, extraneous effects that feel completely superfluous, and nothing builds towards having a solid melody or hook or tune. The mix on many of these songs are simply overstuffed with elements that seem to be attempting to give the songs a more 'modern' or accessible vibe in R&B, but they completely detract from the atmosphere SZA is trying to create. Worse still is the album's near complete lack of intimacy - for such personal and vulnerable subject matter being exposed, this album seems much more interested in ponderous gothic weight and presence, frequently drowning SZA out in the mix and not placing weight on her words. To put it another way, there's a reason Trent Reznor played 'Hurt' on an acoustic guitar.

But this leads to the biggest problem: SZA does not display a lot of presence on this album vocally. And sure, I get why: she's trying to be vulnerable and quiet and go for those understated emotions that you'd find on early Sia albums, for example. But since the production never centers on her, she doesn't fit well with the instrumentation and gets lost in the shuffle, especially when Chance The Rapper and Kendrick Lamar come on both spitting with some louder intensity. And if it was intentional... okay, I get why, in trying to emphasize her isolation and loneliness and feelings of anonymity, but it doesn't exactly make for a compelling mood when the instrumentation feels disjointed and tuneless. What's worse is that SZA's voice is not a solid fit for the bolder electronic tones - a Lauren Mayberry or a Karen O might be a better fit with their more strident voices, but SZA just sounds overwhelmed. 

Look, in the end, I respect SZA's intentions on this album, and the lyrics really do save this record from being a lot worse. But Z by SZA is a punishingly bleak record that really doesn't earn the grandiose atmosphere it tries to create, which makes the album lack cohesion and presence. On top of a severe lack of good melodies or even a minimalist mood to draw emphasis to the singer and the solid lyrics, this album doesn't work nearly as well as it should. That said, I get what she was going for and I definitely appreciate the lyrical arc on this album, even if at points it feels a little scattershot, and I'm sure it'll resonate with some audiences much more strongly. So I'm going to give this album a 6/10 and a cautious recommendation. It's definitely a unique experience, but I can't promise it won't be a frustrating one.

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