By: Heather Bushman
A lot can change in three years.
In 2017, three years ago, I was a junior in high school, “the pandemic” referred to a really bad flu that happened in the early 20th Century, and the Golden State Warriors were still a good basketball team. 2017 was also the last time that R&B superstar SZA released a solo project: an unremarkable little album by the name of Ctrl.
I’m joking, obviously: Ctrl, SZA’s major label debut under Top Dawg Entertainment, was a smash. The album earned SZA five Grammy nominations (including Best New Artist and Best R&B Song for “Supermodel”), sported a high-profile guest list with the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott, and pinned SZA as a refreshing new voice in the R&B scene. In a field that has the tendency to feel monotonous in its multitude of artists, SZA proved herself a standout.
Not many people know this, but Ctrl also happens to be my favorite album.
Again, joking. I literally never stop talking about it.
2017 was a big year for SZA, but since then, she’s been relatively quiet. Aside from projects like a feature on the brilliantly curated Black Panther soundtrack and an unlikely collaboration with Justin Timberlake for a Trolls World Tour track, we haven’t heard much from the elusive Miss Solana. Amid various periods of complete social media silence and public grievances with TDE President Punch over alleged release delays, it looked like that trend would continue.
But, like a phoenix from the ashes, she has emerged from the hellfire of 2020 with a revitalizing ray of light in tow. For the first time in three years, SZA has delivered us the gift of new music, the sly, sensual slow jam “Hit Different.”
The track is a smooth display of classic R&B influences, evidenced primarily by the easy instrumentals. Most of the production from Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams (The Neptunes) is made up of a bass drum/hi-hat/stick-click combo and a few elongated electric piano chords, with some light bell tones and synth notes decorating the second chorus and beyond. Though not especially engaging, it serves as an excellent backdrop for some stellar vocal work from SZA and the ever-consistent Ty Dolla $ign.
Vocal layering is scattered throughout, appearing on certain words in the verses and dominating the pre-chorus. This pre-chorus (“All that I know is/Mirrors inside me/They recognize you/Please don’t deny me”), in its uniform eighth-note delivery, provides a nice opportunity for a full vocal arrangement to shine and acts as a clean transition to the hook. It’s a decent chorus, if a tad repetitive: Dolla $ign echoing his own mellow “hit different,” then adding “hit different when I’m sitting here alone all by myself/hit different when I think you might be with somebody else.” The chorus ends on a high note though, SZA and Ty’s voices blending for some beautifully layered riffing.
Though Dolla $ign is the main voice on the hook, the verses are all SZA, brimming with personality from everything to the lyrics, the rhythmic structure, and the vocal delivery. Thematically, she’s picking up right where she left off on Ctrl: he’s infuriating, she’s insecure, and they’re both involved with other people, so why do they keep coming back to each other
“I was into you from the beginning even if you wasn’t mine.” SZA’s never been one for innuendos or coded wording, much preferring to get straight to the point. It’s this bluntness, along with her use of the modern cultural lexicon, that keeps her fresh. She’s fluent in the language of her generation, and lines like “I’ll still hang around even though you cappin’” prove it further. The vocabulary she uses isn’t particularly elevated or poetic, but that’s not for lack of skill. It’s an intentional move, one that heightens the sense of relatability and connects her with her listeners. Her craftsmanship is abundant, but it shows up more in how she arranges the words she uses than in the words themselves. “You still wit’ it when you want it, got to keep me I am chill/Don’t trip when you see me out, kickin’ with my new bitch” is full of colloquialisms and current slang, but there is incredible sophistication in the way she’s able to make this line glide.
She doesn’t so much sing these verses as she weaves in-and-out of them. With no identifiable melodic pattern or structure, her delivery here is reminiscent of spoken word, changing pace and switching her flow depending on the intended words of emphasis. She falls on and off the beat at will, shifting from steady to syncopated in seconds and creating some fun rhythm schemes. “I could pretend you was my main n*****” combines short staccato syllables and long tones, effectively stopping on a dime to extend the phrases, and “I get more in love with you each argument” sounds like it’s falling off a ledge in both the way the pitch descends and the way every other word is stressed. The end of the second verse is especially impressive, “I’m wading in you like it’s cool/Water like it’s cool/When you pull up boo’d/Up with a new/And it’s not me” settling itself in an intricate triplet rhythm. It’s also a highpoint for SZA’s dynamic vocals, reaching into her falsetto to emphasize the end of each phrase.
The essence of SZA is that of a storyteller, recounting heartbreak with a touch of humor and detailing her vices with a vulnerability rarely seen in the industry. She’s careful with her words, to be sure, but writes with such a casual nature that listening to her feels more like carrying on a conversation than consuming music. On “Hit Different,” familiar themes of jealously, loneliness, and the classic push-and pull make their appearances, and it’s not hard to see why. These ideas, the ones that dominated Ctrl and her earlier work, are SZA’s forte. She’s most comfortable in this wheelhouse, the one filled with personal experiences that she can process in her words. Remaining in it is what allows her to add that flair of personality, that extra layer of intimacy that has established her as a masterful narrator, to her work. Word choice, delivery, and other elements certainly play into her abilities, but the beauty of SZA as a storyteller is mostly held in the kinds of stories she’s telling: her own.
Is “Hit Different” the best song in SZA’s discography? No. Is it an enjoyable and accurate representation of her musical and narrative style? Absolutely. The track is a little on the safe side, but if the glimpses of structural nuance in both her lyrics and her melodies are any indication of what’s to come, then this potential new era looks promising. In any case, it’s wonderful to see SZA return to form after a period of turbulence and uncertainty, and as a fan, it’s satisfying to (finally) have the patience pay off. I’m thrilled that she’s experiencing positive creative environments and I can’t wait to see where this new journey takes her. Three years may have brought some significant changes, but if one thing has remained, it’s that the future looks very bright for Miss Solana.
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