Los Angeles (AFP): SZA is pop's acerbic risk-taker, an artist's artist whose cutting honesty and layered tales of romance have drawn in fans and critics alike.

And now the superstar from New Jersey is entering Sunday's Grammys gala as its top nominee, with chances to take home the night's most prestigious awards.

The versatile 34-year-old singer-songwriter is up against fellow pop phenoms including Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish, as well as music's current ruler Taylor Swift, in the major categories at the ceremony in Los Angeles.

SZA's music -- not unlike that of fellow nominee Lana Del Rey -- epitomizes the millennial "messy woman" archetype, with a focus on themes of sexuality, abandonment and growing disillusionment with a woefully imperfect world.

The singer-songwriter is frequently categorized as an R&B artist -- including by the Recording Academy, whose voters nominated her for several R&B prizes -- though she has voiced disdain for the label, given that her music also draws from pop, folk, rock and jazz.

She told The New York Times Magazine last year that for her, the pinholing is a question of classism in an industry that prioritizes only those Black musicians "who play 50 instruments, went to all the right schools, did all the right programs and talked to all the right people."

"People just sweep me into this conversation of R&B and like -- whatever. It's like, yeah, but I can do so much more... I can do anything," she told the Times.

 

From marine biology to music
The artist -- born Solana Imani Rowe on November 8, 1989 in St. Louis, Missouri -- grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey, a short train ride from Manhattan.

Her father was an executive producer at CNN, while her mother held a top job at telecoms company AT&T.

She grew up in an interfaith household, with a Christian mother and Muslim father, and was raised Muslim. She continues to practice Islam.

After finishing high school, she studied marine biology at Delaware State before dropping out in her last semester.

With a stage name inspired by the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, SZA began gaining recognition for self-released EPs before becoming the first woman signed at Top Dawg Entertainment, an independent label in California, where Kendrick Lamar was an early client.

She signed a major-label recording contract with RCA in 2017, and dropped her debut album later that year to near universal critical acclaim, chart success and a mainstream breakthrough.

She went on to earn both Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for "All the Stars," her collaboration with Lamar for the "Black Panther" soundtrack, which also earned a number of Grammy nods.

SZA won her first Grammy in 2022 for her "Kiss Me More" collaboration with Doja Cat, which was named Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.

 

Ten weeks at number one
Her long-awaited sophomore effort "SOS" -- an eccentric 23-track album released in late 2022 that ruled 2023 -- once again made SZA a critical darling and a chart-topping phenomenon.

It spent 10 weeks atop Billboard's top albums chart, with smash hits including "Kill Bill" and "Used."

The album featured an eclectic blend of styles and genre including pop, rock and jazz -- and even some dreamy electro inflections.

SZA's self-aware lyricism – often peppered with hyper-specific cultural references – gives her fans the sense that she is well and truly just like them.

Her music gives representation to sometimes insecure, sometimes angry women who make repeated bad decisions but who, at the end of the day, are their generation's consummate yearners.

The darkly humorous track "Kill Bill," which earned her a number of Grammy nominations including Record and Song of the Year -- celebrating overall performance and songwriting, respectively -- gets its title from the Quentin Tarantino films of the same name.

Its lyrics mirror the plot of an assassin taking murderous revenge on a former lover: "I might kill my ex, not the best idea / His new girlfriend's next," she sings, unfiltered in her exploration of vengeful emotion.

For all her tales of love's instability, though, SZA is not okay with deprecation that comes from anyone but her.

"People be like, 'Insecurity is her brand.' It's like, 'No, bitch, I'm honest with how I feel about myself, but if I catch you saying that, it's going to be different," she told Rolling Stone in a 2023 profile.

"I'll still beat your ass over disrespecting me.'"