Before the relatable CTRL and the deeply self-aware SOS, there was Z. SZA’s breakthrough EP, released in 2014, is where the R&B artist’s singular songwriting skills started to take form and become an entity of their own. Z followed a pair of self-released projects (2012’s See.SZA.Run and 2013’s S) that highlighted SZA’s penchant for floating her soft-focus vocals over lo-fi production. Upon signing with indie-turned-hip-hop-behemoth Top Dawg Entertainment, the singer, born Solána Imani Rowe, went to work on Z, which presents itself as an early checkpoint in the marathon of her complex life. A profound longing—for knowledge of self and love from another—has persisted throughout SZA’s discography, and it starts here. “Ur,” the opening song, sounds as if it’s starting in reverse before breaking into a stuttering, staticky atmosphere, complete with dark, lackadaisical horns that make way for SZA’s hushed purr. She immediately hits us with lyrics that beg to be interrogated: “Clarity is a state of mind/Freedom ain’t real—who sold you that lie?” SZA takes her time with self-expression, never rushing toward an answer but rather searching for her place along the journey. She moves throughout the EP at varied tempos: “Childs Play,” which samples XXYYXX’s experimental track “About You” and features an animated Chance the Rapper, continues the languid pace set by “Ur.” Elsewhere, songs like “Julia” and “HiiiJack” veer toward glimmering, upbeat territory, as SZA blends irreverence with thoughtfulness in her now-signature lyrical approach. “Sweet November” sees her singing over Marvin Gaye’s expansive “Mandota” instrumental, a tall task that she ambitiously tackles head-on. While the EP stands at 10 tracks, the project incorporates many more unexpected moments of sonic shifts that allow SZA to explore and experiment with her breathy voice and heady lyrics. (See “Warm Winds,” which sounds like a jolly giant trekking through a meadow made of dense synths, before a midway beat switch to light boom bap and neo-soul; and “Green Mile,” which starts out pensive and spacious before collapsing into a twinkling, starry end). Z brims with anxious thoughts and second and third guesses, but SZA manages to make it sound like she’s taking it all in stride.

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