As R&B superstar SZA has continued to ascend to the highest levels of popular music’s stratosphere over the past year — No. 1 hits, festival headlining slots, A-list collaborations, raves from critics and peers — her résumé still lacks a key item: major Grammy success. While SZA has been nominated for 15 Grammys — an impressive number, considering that as of the most recent ceremony, she still only had one full-length album to her name — she has just one win: in the best pop/duo group performance category, for her guest turn on Doja Cat’s crossover smash, “Kiss Me More.”
That seems likely to change at the 2024 Grammys, following the December 2022 release of her SOS, one of the most universally lauded albums of the past year. Not only did it draw near-unanimous praise, it also brought SZA to a new level of commercial dominance: SOS topped the Billboard 200 for 10 nonconsecutive weeks, with all 23 of its tracks hitting the Billboard Hot 100 — including breakout single “Kill Bill,” which became her first No. 1 on the chart. “There’s nobody close,” says artist development specialist and academy member Chris Anokute when gauging SZA’s 2024 Grammy credentials. “The girl has paid her dues. She has been releasing music for seven years. And she has made a multigenre, multiformatted album — the best multigenre, multiformatted record I’ve heard in years. And it deserves to be the album of the year.”
Indeed, the feeling among insiders that Billboard spoke with for this article is that SZA’s career has hit all the right beats for a Grammy artist since she signed with Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) a decade ago — and that it’s time for the Recording Academy to properly recognize her. “The Grammys are supposed to reward artists who show development and growth; artists who were once opening up and then get to arena level,” one music industry veteran says. “The Grammys really should want to be behind the trajectory of an artist like that.”
A source on SZA’s team confirms that the label will run a traditional campaign for her and points to increased visibility from the second leg of her North America tour (which includes two late-October stops in Los Angeles), as well as a deluxe reissue of SOS — recently confirmed by SZA herself as being titled Lana, featuring “seven to 10 [new] songs” and coming sometime this fall. The team has also sent out SOS boxes to “partners at press, radio” and digital service providers that include the album on vinyl and CD, as well as a compass, ring, metal straw and cleaning brush.
“Such packages have become very effective through the years because that’s what helps make projects stand out,” says a veteran marketing strategist of the box set promotional strategy. “It’s about what’s going to remind people that this record is a contender.”
While the album (and its accompanying singles, “Kill Bill” and the more recent top 10 hit “Snooze”) likely will be in the running, it’s working against the tide of recent history. R&B has had some success in the past decade within the all-genre Big Four categories, but the genre’s most successful artists in the general field have tended to be those who embraced more of a classic, retro-vibing R&B mold: Bruno Mars and Silk Sonic, H.E.R., Jon Batiste. Artists like SZA — whose R&B is largely rooted in hip-hop sonics (and who came up as the lone R&B artist on the rap-focused TDE) — have, like rap itself, struggled to gain that kind of Grammy recognition.
Anokute doesn’t necessarily see that lack of recent precedent as an issue for SZA’s chances, instead calling back two decades to a pair of artists whose blend of classic and modern soul sounds made them pop insiders and Grammy darlings. “To me, you could compare this SZA moment to Lauryn Hill’s and Alicia Keys’ big Grammy moments [in 1999 and 2002, respectively],” he says. “She has crossed boundaries, she has crossed race with this album. At the end of the day, popular is popular, right? … You can’t call pop music [only] music that is on top 40 radio. Pop music is the most popular genre. And at the end of the day, Black music is the most popular music in the world.”
No matter how popular her music is currently, SZA will still have her work cut out for her contending at next year’s Grammys, likely against some of the other biggest artists in the world right now — including Olivia Rodrigo, Morgan Wallen and of, course, three-time album of the year winner Taylor Swift. However, Anokute points out that no one, not even the galactically popular Swift, can boast the cross-demographic appeal that SZA now has: “In terms of the most popular record between all genres of people, SZA beats Taylor Swift. I don’t know anybody listening to Taylor Swift outside of mostly, you know, white people… But I know a lot of white people, a lot of Black people, a lot of Spanish people that are listening to SZA and are huge fans. I’m not saying that Taylor only appeals to white people or Caucasian people, but the majority of her fan base is not Black or brown. SZA’s is, but she also crossed over.”
And whether the Grammys ultimately reward SZA’s latest, one music industry veteran says that it is in the Recording Academy’s best interest to look forward with R&B as much as backward. “We appreciate [the recognition for] the Bruno Marses and the H.E.R.s — they’re a safe balance,” the veteran says. “I think the academy knows that to be a part of the future, they have to embrace the future… Can we prove the Rolling Stone guy [Jann Wenner] wrong? That’s what we should focus on.”
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