SZA: The record company took my hard drive from me

The R&B singer endorsed by Beyonc and Kendrick Lamar explains why her much delayed album was finally and forcibly released

Last year, Solna Rowe walked away from music for good. She was 25, and she had been putting out EPs as SZA (say it like scissor) since 2012, when rapper/producer Terrence Punch Henderson stumbled across some early tracks and signed her up to Top Dawg Entertainment, the label thats also home to Kendrick Lamar, Isaiah Rashad and Schoolboy Q. In the time she had been working, she had co-written Feeling Myself for Beyonc and Nicki Minaj, and Antis opening track Consideration for Rihanna. But the path to a debut album proper had been long, slow and tortuous. It was promised at the end of 2015, then at the start of 2016. Last October, she had had enough. I actually quit, Rowe tweeted. @iamstillpunch [Henderson] can release my album if he ever feels like it. Yall be blessed.

But its 10 months later and SZA is still here. Her debut album, Ctrl, has finally been released, and it has turned out to be one of the most inventive and intimate records of the year, an astonishing collection of styles and stories that feels like a hazy conversation over a long night with a close friend. Its often brutal honesty about sex and relationships and self-esteem for women in their 20s has found a dedicated and devoted fanbase the new season of Insecure, for example, uses tracks from it in multiple episodes.

So how serious was she really about quitting? Super serious, she insists today, in the back room of a house in south London, where shes curled up in an armchair, texting friends and family back home. I dont feel subscribed to anything. So I feel like, when this isnt fun, Im not gonna do it any more. When I cant grow, Im not gonna do it any more. But its still fun. She laughs knowingly. Theres a pause. For now.

Watch the video for SZAs single Drew Barrymore.

Two things are evident about the world around Rowe. The first is that she doesnt do anything she doesnt want to do. Its a relatively new attitude, she says, which gives her some sense of control over her life. Ive started practising carte blanche just doing whatever the fuck I feel like doing, as long as I do it with good intention. So I dont feel crunched, she explains. Now with all this new shit around me, I dont always know whats negotiable. I sometimes just assume, because things are very official and shiny and very fast-paced and very organised and very not what they were She tails off.

The second is that chaos seems to swirl around her. Over the course of our conversation, people come and go, wanting a minute of her time. A very drunk woman tries to get her number, disappears, comes back into the room and then starts crying; we move the interview to the bathroom, then get locked in. Is it always like this, I ask? A member of her entourage says no, at the exact same moment Rowe yells, delightedly, Yes!

In person Rowe is frank and funny, and SZA fans love her openness and warmth. The night before we meet, she does a Q&A session for a room full of mostly female fans who plainly adore her, including Chewing Gums Michaela Coel. Much of Ctrl feels like a series of messages between friends and lovers. Let me tell you a secret/ I been secretly banging your homeboy, she sings on album opener Supermodel. Im sorry Im not more ladylike/ Im sorry I dont shave my legs at night, she sings on Drew Barrymore, which dives right into a Netflix-and-chill scenario: Somebody get the tacos, somebody spark the blunt/ Lets start the Narcos off at episode one. But is she just telling stories, or is it all true? Unfortunately, it is, yeah, she sighs.

The one problem with laying her life bare like this is that she thinks her mother doesnt like it. Rowe was born in Missouri and raised in New Jersey, and there are reports online that she was raised in a strict Muslim household. The reality is slightly more complicated than that. My mom didnt let me eat sugar or candy until I was older, she explains. She didnt let me perm my hair till I was old as fuck. And I begged her to. My mom is a Pan-Africanist. My dad is still Orthodox Sunni Muslim, but hes super fun. He worked in television for years. He was a Black Panther. So wait, they werent that strict? She laughs. No, they are strict. I just didnt care! I made it very difficult for them.

Rowe says that when she broke away from Islam as a teenager, she stopped speaking to her father for a while. Her mother, who appears on Ctrl in a series of spoken-word interludes, hasnt mentioned the album at all to her daughter. I know she probably thinks Im very exposed. My mother is probably mortified actually about my album, but she loves me so much. She wouldnt tell you? No, because its a personal opinion. And we already kinda had this talk when Beyonc dropped her album. My mom was like, I feel naked listening to her album. I just feel like theres some things you shouldnt say to the world. That was already after I had made Supermodel and Doves in the Wind, and those songs were done.

Friends in high places … SZA and her label mate Kendrick Lamar at the Grammys in 2016. Photograph: Lester Cohen/WireImage

Her mother was yet to hear what they were about. I was like, Well, Mommy, youre not wrong. As a kid, she says, her mother would beg her to change her clothes before church. And I would not change, she says, unsurprisingly. I was a funky kid. I didnt give a fuck. I loved experimenting. In the early 00s, the only influences for funky styles were Jamiroquai and Kelis. And George Clinton, because your dad is really on some old school shit. Now youre out here just wearing drawers on the outside, and a fur coat. Camron! she recalls. These are your fashion icons. Your mom, and Lauryn Hill also. My mom just didnt understand. She wasnt having it. So Im sure she knew this was coming but shes relinquished her desire for control over me. Shes loosened her grip. So now she just accepts, well, all right.

At this point, chaos swirling, we move into the bathroom. Perching on the edge of the shower, she explains that the delays around Ctrl were because of a kind of blinding paralysis brought on by anxiety, which affects her awfully. I freestyle everything, all the way down. And I listen back and think, whats shitty? And if somethings too shitty and I cant put my finger on it, and I think, wow this sucks to me, then I get way frustrated, and usually scrap the song. She says thats what happened with Ctrl. That, and the fact that she gets lost on tangents too easily. She says her mother has always complained about her loose sense of time. Everyone Ive ever dated have been complaining about that. What? I havent seen you in three days, relax! Theyre like, I havent seen you in six months, what are you talking about? But thats just the way it is.

Eventually, Rowe explains, Ctrl came out in June because they cut me off. So who decided it was finished? They just took my hard drive from me. That was all. I just kept fucking everything up. I just kept moving shit around. I was choosing from 150, 200 songs, so Im just like, who knows whats good any more? She doesnt know who took it, just that it was gone from the safe in the studio one day. So after all that, this Ctrl isnt necessarily the Ctrl you would have put out? No, absolutely not. Any longer and I probably wouldnt Im also driving myself fucking crazy, so I dont know. Give me another month and it would have been something completely different.

However, she doesnt think well have to wait so long for the follow-up. No! I have less anxiety about the things that hindered me putting this album out, so Ill probably be done in the next six months. On the next one, she wants to look outwards instead of in, and write about the world. The woorrrrld, she whispers, conspiratorially. Other people. I feel like were all connected anyway.

I worry that Ive smoked too much weed and shot my brain to heaven … SZA. Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

Maybe, she considers, the reason young women are so into what she does is because, in being so honest, shes attracting people with like-minded energy. Shes interested in energy, and psychology, and mentions neurological science and theories a lot. As long as youre being honest and theres intention in what youre doing, then I think that energy permeates your field and becomes like a homing signal for other people with like energies. And then its, like, you draw each other in, cos youre looking for each other subconsciously. Or sub-energy-etically. She giggles. Sub-energistically?

She thinks its this same energetic likemindedness that led to Drew Barrymore appearing in the video for the single named after her. (Rowe is a huge movie buff, and shes as much a fan of the trashy 90s schlocky horror Poison Ivy as she is of Never Been Kissed. You feel me? Nobody knows that movie! Its fire!) She wrote Barrymore a letter asking her to appear but never sent it. Barrymore asked to be in the video anyway. She just came 100% on her own because she fucked with it, she says. This doesnt make any sense. But people always say when you write things down in the physical world it becomes something. It transmutes the energy. Its wild. But I find that to be kinda true. I found my notebook from the other day and I had drawn my album cover. Like, to the T, but months before I shot the cover or even had the thought. But I forgot! It was just in my journal. Your brain is always with you even when youre not with it.

What is it about the brain that fascinates her so much? I love information, she laughs. I also worry that Ive smoked too much weed and shot my brain to heaven so I always worry that Im not going to get any smarter. It makes me so sad, so Im always like, fuck, well, try to retain information girl. You can. Someone is calling Rowe again; this time its a manager, trying to locate her, so she can bundle her into a car, on to her next stop. Im in the bathroom! she shouts, then tries the door. Its stuck. After a moment of panic, we barge it open, and she bursts through it, still laughing. She pulls me in for a hug, says goodbye, and grins. Sorry for the calamity.

Ctrl is out on TDE/RCA Records

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/jul/29/sza-record-company-took-my-hard-drive-beyonce-kendrick-lamar

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