The Stunning Transformation Of SZA

SZA definitely isn't a normal girl (in the best way). As of writing, the young singer-songwriter has been nominated for 24 Grammy awards and has won four — three of which she scooped up in 2024 alone. And yet, even as the accolades and praise continue to roll in, she has not adjusted to the fame. As she said in a December 2023 interview with Zane Lowe, "I'm still the shy person from high school." 

Her unique stage name SZA (pronounced SIZZ-uh) was inspired by Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, who formed his name through the Supreme Alphabet by Clarence 13X. In an interview with InStyle, she explained her chosen name, "It's an acronym derived from the Supreme Alphabet [of the Nation of Gods and Earths, an alphanumeric code developed by Clarence 13X]." For her chosen name SZA, "S stands for Sovereign or Self, Savior; the Z stands for Zig-Zag-Zig, which is enlightenment and acknowledgement of one's self; and the A stands for the most high of all [Allah]."

Years after the debut of her first studio album "Ctrl" in 2017, SZA shows no signs of slowing down or stopping. Here are some highlights from her journey as a small-town kid in Jersey to becoming a Grammy award-winning singer and songwriter who rubs elbows with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Lizzo, and Beyoncé.

SZA grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey

Before there was SZA there was Solána Imani Rowe. The future superstar was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on November 8, 1989, but grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey. As her mother, Audrey Rowe, said in The New York Times, young SZA was "highly energetic." She was also an avid reader, and writing became an outlet for her at a young age. "I was that kid that had super profound emotions that I couldn't express. It was almost laughable that I had this many existential crises at eight" she recalled. Though she saw music as more of a hobby than a career at first, her parents had recognized her talent early on in life. "She had a voice from very young years," Rowe shared.

Growing up in Maplewood influenced SZA's music. Her sound has been compared to that of fellow Grammy winner Lauryn Hill, who was raised in the same New Jersey town. "We're completely different. But that hometown Maplewood energy is contagious. It's how they make us," she explained in an interview with People. "The stuff that she sings about and raps about are things that I experienced, too. I relate more to her Jersey essence than to the queen lyricist that she is."

She was raised in an interfaith household

SZA was raised in an interfaith household where her mother was a Christian and her father was an orthodox Sunni Muslim. Growing up, she attended both Sunday school and Muslim school. According to the "Kill Bill" singer, it is likely that the first books she read growing up were the Quran and the Bible. Her parents were able to practice separate religions in one household with apparent ease and acceptance. "My mom would do her, my dad would do him," she told The New York Times. "My dad will come to my mom's church on big events. My mom will get dressed up for Jum'ah and come with my dad to the mosque. My mom would put up a Christmas tree, and my dad would roll his eyes and pretend he didn't see it." 

SZA herself is a proud Muslim. As she told Complex in 2013, Islam is where she feels the "most comfortable." "It just makes most sense to me out of everything else, there's less variables and less space for human error ... I like the clarity," she continued. Growing up Muslim wasn't an easy experience though, especially after 9/11, when anti-Muslim sentiment grew in the United States. "I wish people understood more because Islam has been the most loving experience," the singer-songwriter told Nylon in 2017. "People just don't have enough exposure, and it's hard when you don't have exposure to not be afraid."

SZA was bullied as a teenager

SZA grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, so she had to grapple with her identity as a minority on two fronts early on. "I'm Muslim and I'm Black. So the American Dream isn't something that was ever possible for me," the singer-songwriter told Clash. "Your parents try to tell you that everything is possible, or they try to ensure you that no one will judge you. But sometimes it's institutionalized or it's not even your fault, you just can't beat certain cases." She used to wear a hijab, but real-life implications post-9/11 as well as the added pressure from bullying and Islamophobia made her stop altogether. Her father's mosque was vandalized, and she was even being called a "terrorist" by kids at school. "I stopped covering after 9/11," she shared in an interview with Muslim Girl. "This was like elementary school, middle school. I regret so much—like, being afraid or caring what people said about me, or in high school feeling like if I didn't cover all the time that I can't start covering some of the time."

In addition to dealing with bigotry on a regular basis, the future Grammy winner struggled to connect with her peers. "I was awkward. I walked up to people like, 'Can we be friends?' Who says that? I would say it," she told The New York Times. In a separate chat with People, she shared, "I was bullied because I wasn't quiet and I was awkward at the same time."

She dropped out of college

After she finished high school, SZA's parents expected her to get a college degree. And when it came time to pick a major, her parents weren't exactly pushing for her to sign up for music courses. As her mother, Audrey Rowe, acknowledged in The New York Times, "The arts would not have been my choice." And so, she attended Delaware State University to major in marine biology, only to realize that it wasn't for her. Not just marine biology, but the university experience altogether. "I'm like, 'I told you I was smart and I proved my point. I have to leave now,'" SZA recalled in Elle in 2023.

Before SZA pulled the plug on school, however, she got a bartending job at a strip club (by lying about her age) and spent most of her time drinking, sleeping, and smoking weed. For one summer, she attended New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, and it proved to be more in line with her actual interests. Following this path, she interned at Pharrell Williams and Nigo's brand the Billionaire Boys Club, and worked for the streetwear brand 10. Deep. 

Around that time, in between dropping out of college and exploring a career in fashion, she started uploading tracks to SoundCloud. She released her first mixtape, "See.SZA.Run," in 2012, which was followed by "S" a year later.

In 2013, she was the first signed female artist and singer at Top Dawg Entertainment

Though she's a bona fide hitmaker now, SZA didn't always see herself pursuing a music career. She explored fashion, and at one point, she even thought she would end up owning a marketing firm. "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," the "Snooze" singer shared in an interview with Nylon in 2017.

It was a stroke of luck when Terrence Henderson, the president of Top Dawg Entertainment, discovered SZA in 2011 back when she was still an intern at 10. Deep. The fortuitous moment arrived when SZA and a friend crossed paths with Henderson during a work errand. During said errand, SZA's friend happened to be listening to her talented pal through headphones, and Henderson was immediately intrigued. "What jumped out instantly was her voice — it was so distinctive — and then the words. She approached singing as a rapper. Instantly, I'm like, 'I know what to do with this,'" he told Variety

They kept in touch afterward, and SZA sent new music his way. Two years later, she was signed to the label, becoming TDE's first singer and first female artist. "I just brought TDE clothes the day after their show. I never intended to become one of those artists," SZA said in her aforementioned interview with Clash.

She released her debut album Ctrl in 2017

After signing with Top Dawg Entertainment, SZA's resume just kept getting better. Her first big studio album, "Ctrl," debuted in June 2017. The album's release catapulted her name into the public consciousness. It was critically acclaimed by music critics and well-loved by her fans old (from her humble SoundCloud days) and new. Five years after its release, it was dubbed by Rolling Stone as one of the 100 best debut albums of all time. It also earned her five Grammy nominations and an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding New Artist in 2018. And the "Broken Clocks" singer was only getting started. As she said in Time, "This is just my entry chord into even understanding how to write."

Though the lyrics track after track in "Ctrl" are raw, vulnerable, and relatable, SZA maintains that the content isn't too personal in the sense that she could dig even deeper. "I think it was pretty surface level for what I could do," she told Time. "I think this was me being afraid to go there in a lot of ways. Just me dipping my toe in. Now I know that people don't mind, I can really not be afraid to become a better writer, to get my song structure together, to make it work."

SZA keeps her love life pretty private

As open of a book as SZA is, she keeps her dating life pretty low-key. And by low-key, we mean she had a fiancé she was engaged to for five years and was with for 11 years, and his identity has still not been confirmed. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2023, she did share that her song "Nobody Gets Me" is about her ex-fiancé, but she left it at that. 

One of the only relationships she's publicly acknowledged was a brief fling with Drake. which was probably only prompted after Drake released the song "Mr. Right Now" in 2020. On the track, Drake raps, "Yeah, she said she wanted to f**k to some SZA, wait 'cause I used to date SZA back in '08." SZA noted on X (formerly Twitter) that they dated in 2009, not 2008, but acknowledged that he presumably changed the year to rhyme with the word "wait." She offered this correction not to be petty, but to make it clear that she was of age when they were together. "I just didn't want anybody thinking anything underage or creepy was happening," she tweeted.

All that said, Drake and SZA seem to be on good terms to this day — so much so, that the two teamed up on the 2023 track "Slime You Out." The song is featured on Drake's album "For All the Dogs."

SZA opened up about her mental health struggles

Part of SZA's allure is her candor. She is open about her mental health struggles and has openly shared that she has ADHD and experiences anxiety. It is also public knowledge that SZA has not one, but three therapists. "I have a hypnotherapist, I have a talk therapist, and they tried to get me a psychiatrist," she shared in an interview with Zane Lowe in 2023. "There is so much perceiving going on. These people don't know you, they're seeing you in a vacuum in your most high-pressure moments. And it's scary." 

In a 2023 interview with Elle, SZA noted that some people are quick to assume her insecurities and anxiety are all "an act." However, that is far from the case. "Everybody else has feelings and fears," she countered. "Because I'm famous, I'm not allowed to be scared? I wasn't born famous."

In her aforementioned interview with Rolling Stone, SZA shared that she'll do what she can to keep her anxiety at bay. When filming the music video for "Snooze," for example, she took steps ahead of time to make sure she felt at ease about the shoot. "What helps my anxiety is preparation," she said. "The reason why this video is not a negative experience is because I fitted with the [stylists]. I talked to my friends. I know everything. I had a whole group chat with hair and makeup. If it wasn't for that, I would've had an attitude."

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

She won three Grammy awards in 2024 after being snubbed in 2018

In 2018, SZA garnered five Grammy nominations and was invited to perform during the award show. However, despite all of the buzz and praise surrounding "Ctrl," she did not take home any gold-plated gramophones that year. "That night, right before I lost the last two, Tyler [the Creator] was like, 'Nah, it would be so f**king weird if you lost everything and they asked you to perform,'" she recalled in Rolling Stone. Needless to say, she was devastated to leave the show without a single win.

Now that some time has passed and the dust has settled, SZA is able to process the Grammy snub. "I'm just a girl from the 'burbs. I never had dreams of being nominated for a Grammy," the "Snooze" singer told Cosmopolitan in 2021. "Once you've been nominated and lost, you're very much free because you're not concerned. I passed that threshold years ago—it's an old energy to me. Why would I be mad?"

The tides turned though in 2022 when she and Doja Cat earned the Grammy for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for their single "Kiss Me More." And finally, in 2024, when she won as both a duo and a solo artist bringing home three Grammy awards: Best R&B Song for "Snooze," Best Progressive R&B Album for "SOS," and an award for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance with Phoebe Bridgers for "Ghost in the Machine." Not a bad haul for a shy kid.