The following feature appears in the April 2017 issue of NYLON.
SZA is not a morning person. It’s little help that the day of the singer-songwriter’s photo shoot with NYLON is a cold one, and our new studio’s radiator happens to be malfunctioning, and the only warm beverage available is coffee, which she doesn’t drink. Anyone who’s accustomed to working with entertainers knows that this is ample fodder for a rant or, at the very least, a complaint, but that’s not SZA’s style. Instead, she is the one apologizing—for not being awake, for having such particular drink preferences—and promises that she’ll be more lively once she’s finished doing her own makeup. Sure enough, when she emerges from the bathroom a half-hour later with a razor-sharp winged eye and impeccably matte face framed by her fluffy bangs, her energy fills the room as she teases her manager, Punch, and invites her former college roommate to stop by.
An animated talker and huge fan of hugs (she admits responsibility for a number of embraces with her begrudging labelmates on Top Dawg Entertainment—Kendrick Lamar included), the 26-year-old has plenty of personality to channel into her songs. But it wasn’t until recently that she’s become comfortable with being just as unreserved in her music. For most of her six-year career, she’s hidden behind stacks of harmonies and overpowering beats, a method that was born from the fact that she’s still learning how to create music. Before she was discovered by the TDE crew in 2011 (she was ultimately signed in 2013), she devoted more mental energy to gymnastics and science than music theory while growing up in Maplewood, New Jersey. “I actually thought I was going to own a marketing firm,” she says of her early career goals, and her odd jobs included a stint at Sephora (in skincare, not as a makeup artist, as her glam skills would suggest). “Music was my hobby, but then became more of a serious hobby because I didn’t suck at it, and I was intrigued that I didn’t suck at it.”