While sometimes falling victim to Pop platitudes, SZA's TDE debut is a strong, nostalgic trance about heartbreak and self-questioning.
There’s a moment on SZA’s Z—hiding in gossamer synth and Electro-pop crossover—where the dream takes a wrenching turn. “Gun fighting, fatality, boy / Hell fire, boy, I stay for eternity,” the Top Dawg rookie wails on the bridge of “HiiiJack.” Her 10-song EP plays out as a hazy, genderized story of unrequited love, one with constant shifts in vignettes and vantage points. But on a tonally upbeat “HiiiJack,” things become grimly cyclical, and SZA’s position as a victim trapped in a sequence of soured relationships and unmet expectations is suddenly much more defenseless. The next song, “Green Mile,” has her “heading to the massacre,” and starting the starkly darker second half of the tape with overwhelming futility.
That’s not to say Z is a challenging listen. Nostalgia and reminiscence are central themes, and rippling keys, tingling guitar and crashing percussion cast a syrupy, surreal backdrop perfect for those just trying to vibe out. SZA’s third EP in as many years is by far her most sonically enjoyable, and it’s only after Z runs its dreamlike course that you wake up and realize that it was more of a nightmare than you thought. It’s a subtle twist from an artist previously used as a more direct emotive accomplice on hooks for labelmates Isaiah Rashad and ScHoolboy Q.
There are the obvious efforts to make Z illusory, from the weeded production of Mac Miller, Toro y Moi and Emile Haynie to the bluntness of lines like, “Here in your backyard, building a fantasy / Fuck reality” on “Childs Play.” But what truly makes it seem like a dream is its blatant disregard for time. Stylistically, Z moves forward: “Julia” is a three-decade update of Fleetwood Mac, while the Kendrick Lamar-assisted “Babylon” is four head-bobbing minutes of futuristic R&B. But thematically, Z is always looking back, and what results is each track becoming suspension of nonlinear narrative. “Warm Winds” takes a “space ride” with Rashad, but the rearview mirrors turn to a duet that recalls an old flame; “Sweet November” flips Marvin Gaye’s “Mandota” and details a relationship with a man named Tommy that’s neither completely over nor renewed.
Z is strongest when SZA avoids usual Pop tropes. Too many songs are about being left brokenhearted, and don’t add much to what’s already been done—“Loving alone is what you make it / Stay for the storm if you can take it / But pray for a raincoat,” she sings on “Julia.” It’s not quite original enough for a label that has released some of the genre’s boldest music of the past few years. “Childs Play,” in contrast, is loaded with relatable quirks and tongue-in-cheek childhood references that shred any predictability, and one of Chance The Rapper’s nimblest non sequitur verses to date makes the single among Z’s most memorable moments. “Sweet November” is about getting fucked over, but this time SZA skirts self-pity for a two-verse conversation between her and her conscience about “flying high and fearless.” Things with Tommy sound bleak, but SZA’s smooth vocals ride Gaye’s guitar to a strange smoked-out empowerment.
Those vocals, impressively ranged throughout the project, point to SZA’s promise regardless of songwriting pitfalls. SZA remains airy and winding on all 10 cuts, qualities that are just as endearing on Z’s Electronic and Pop beats as they are on the more mellow tracks. Her Type-B tonality is an ideal match for Kendrick, Chance and Rashad, but the true best collaboration is her work with MixedByAli, TDE’s in-house engineer that maximizes SZA’s smoothness.
Z fails to expand its subject matter, but some dreams are memorable just for being aesthetically vivid, rather than having an involved plot. While there’s plenty of room for SZA to mature as a writer and a storyteller, she’s clearly a strong musician able to hold her own beyond TDE guest spots. That’s enough to keep us dreaming for a while.