guessed her debut album so thoroughly that it was delayed for a year. The head of her record label says that self-doubt is her “kryptonite.”
In a rehearsal space on the edge of Manhattan in December, where the Los Angeles-based artist was practicing for a performance on “Saturday Night Live,” her kryptonite announced itself. She recalled the stinging experience of working on her album “Ctrl,” released last summer.
“My anxiety had been telling me the whole time that it sucked,” said the singer, 27, soft-spoken and unreserved in a fluorescent-lit office. In an oversized woolly sweater, with one foot in a chunky Balenciaga sneaker slung reflexively over the top of a wooden desk, she could still enumerate the record’s flaws.
Its sonic palette was too shallow, she said; its concepts and word choices were too redundant; its hooks could have been stronger. At one point while recording it, she threatened on Twitter to quit music altogether. When her label intervened and scheduled the album for release, she said, she “just wanted to hurry up and fail.”
But the opposite happened. “Ctrl” emerged as one of the year’s most critically acclaimed albums and became a talisman for young women, particularly young women of color, who saw themselves in its unflinching parables of sexual liberation and emotional liability. At the 60th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday night, she is the most nominated woman, with five nods, including best new artist.
After last year’s ceremony, where Beyoncé’s best album faced defeat and Frank Ocean’s abstention prompted sharp criticism and sparked the #GrammysSoWhite hashtag, SZA is at the forefront of a wave of ethnically diverse young artists (including the 19-year-old singer Khalid and Donald Glover’s hip-hop adjacent alter ego Childish Gambino) who swept nominations in many of the top categories this year.
All the accolades have left her inner critic bereft. SZA said the experience — of persistent self-suspicion colliding with overwhelming external praise — had so unmoored her that she came up with a name for the condition: “dysmorphia.”
“You wonder, ‘Are you delusional? Is something wrong with you?’ ” she said. “I never imagined anything like this would happen in a million years.”Part of her still can’t. :
"I guess I’ll have to re-evaluate my life,” she said, asked what she’ll do if she ends up winning a Grammy. A compliment, for her, has become a kind of crisis, too. “Because then the dysmorphia would really be hitting a peak."In an industry where the youngest stars radiate the most heat, SZA was a relatively late bloomer. She self-released her first EP at 22 and came to music as a refuge from jobs as a bartender and a sales assistant on the floor at Sephora. She was born to a Catholic communications executive mother and a Muslim television producer father in St. Louis. The family moved to suburban Maplewood, N.J., when she was 10.