Top Dawg Entertainment backs SZA’s first album release

April 16, 2014

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Coming off the heels of two successful EPs, “See.SZA.Run” and “S,” American artist SZA released her debut album, “Z,” on April 8.

SZA is the latest artist to sign with independent L.A. rap label Top Dawg Entertainment, joining a powerhouse lineup including Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and Isaiah Rashad.

While “Z” is a fine album and an interesting departure from Top Dawg’s usual fare, SZA’s latest project feels somewhat static and lacks charisma.

SZA refers to her music as “glitter trap,” which is an apt description of the sound. Most of her beats heavily feature subdued trap drums and shiny synths with the singer’s vocals layered in. Instead of using Top Dawg’s in-house production team Digi+Phonics, the album is produced by a variety of beat makers including Toro Y Moi and Larry Fisherman, Mac Miller’s production alias.

There are a few disco-esque tracks, but “Z’s” instrumentals are generally darker and murkier compared to those in her previous EPs.

When SZA’s vocals shine over the atmospheric mix — as they do on “Warm Winds” and “HiiiJack” — listening to “Z” is a pleasant, head-bobbing experience. However, tracks including “Green Mile” and “Babylon” lose SZA’s crisp voice in favor of smoked-out, moaning vocal arrangements, leading to skippable songs.

Lyrically, “Z” has some interesting moments of specificity — “Your skin tastes like Brussels sprouts, I swear,” she croons on album-opener “Ur” — but generally the lines remain ambiguous.

SZA does not invite listeners into her world with literal scenes like her label-mates Isaiah Rashad and Schoolboy Q did with “Cilvia Demo” and “Oxymoron,” respectively. Yet, her lyrics are certainly evocative, drawing up certain feelings with each track.

Where exactly SZA will go from here is an interesting question because the “glitter trap” genre is getting somewhat tired. Her track “Child’s Play,” which is basically a rip of XXYYXX’s “About You” without the interesting vocal sample and heavy synth drop, might best encompass SZA’s current “glitter trap” aesthetic, but it is also one of “Z’s” most snooze-worthy tracks. “Child’s Play,” like a few other songs on “Z,” just does not go anywhere. It is a nice, polished interlude, but it lacks driving force behind it.

Some might argue that tracks like “Child’s Play” are intentionally uneventful and that SZA’s muted atmosphere is the point of her special brand of hazy R&B. Regardless, it is not very compelling music. There is a fine line between keeping things seductively simple and keeping things boring, and SZA is leaning toward the latter on much of “Z.”

One exception is her warm, retro riff on Marvin Gaye’s “Mandota” titled “Sweet November.” The song hits all the right notes — perhaps it is a sign that SZA could be successfully recast as a fusion neo-soul jazz singer.

This is not to say that such a direction is necessarily the right move, but SZA will need to spice things up for her next project to hold listeners’ attention.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, April 16 print edition. Peter Slattery is a staff writer. Email him at music@nyunews.com.

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