The tightly run musical operation that is TDE could have easily been undone – or at least thrown off course – by its recent success, which in other cases might have been cause enough to overreach and overextend. Instead, they’ve continued to make moves in characteristically prudent fashion, adding pieces to the roster that fit the crew’s ethos while representing exciting potential. Having already dropped Isaiah Rashad’s impressive Cilvia Demo earlier this year, SZA – TDE’s other signing from last summer – proves her worth with her equally promising EP, Z.
Not unlike some of the stuff heard on Cilvia Demo, SZA’s music is of a mellow, vibe-y sort. Combined with her slightly breathy, caressing sigh of a voice – not wholly distinctive just yet – it’s safe to say SZA will have music writers ruffling through thesauri attempting to find matching descriptors for “ethereal.” There’s no denying her sweet spot: hushed tones and calm soundscapes, a recipe cooked up equally well solo (“Ur”) and with similarly-minded guests (whether it’s Chance the Rapper’s wounded singsong on “Childs Play” or Isaiah Rashad popping up at the end of the enveloping soul duet “Warm Winds”).
If that sounds a tad familiar, Z offers up a relatively wide scope for the realm of atmospheric R&B. “Julia” – easily the most immediately arresting track on the EP – plays like something of a backboard for Indie Pop’s recent obsession with R&B, all effervescent synths and shrewdly layered vocal coos. Kendrick Lamar brings the requisite degree of weirdness along for “Babylon,” with its mutated drums and distorted backdrop. And “Sweet November” evokes a jazz-soul vibe, though one that admittedly veers towards imitation.
Mostly, though, it’s the small stuff that makes Z so striking: unfussy, affecting melodies; subtle shifts in vocal delivery; hints at more adventurous ideas tucked into otherwise less memorable songs. Even lyrically – where SZA is occasionally poetic to the point of disconnect – there are seemingly fleeting moments (particularly the touch point ’90s kids references to Street Fighter and Pepper Ann) that have the potential to be resonant.
Z will almost certainly fall on the wrong side of the tranquil/sleepy spectrum for some, and there are times when SZA loses a bit of her voice amidst the melancholy pop of songs like “Green Mile” and “Shattered Ring.” But considering the Hip-Hop context in which SZA now operates – where rap crews are traditionally required to have that one “R&B chick” – TDE has come out ahead with a distinct and independently viable artist that can legitimately stand toe to toe with her male cohorts.