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Album review: 'Z' by SZA raises Top Dawg Entertainment's ambitions

Yes, SZA is the first female artist signed to Top Dawg Entertainment, the vanguard L.A. hip-hop label behind Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q. But her album "Z" represents high ambitions for the label. It's a lean, dreamy and genre-destroying debut that steers the TDE ship into new waters.

The 23-year-old, New Jersey-raised singer isn't an obvious signing for a label devoted to hard-won tales of redemption and introspection in South L.A. But she's a perfect complement to that catalog. Her voice hovers at the edges of R&B, with a dazed, ethereal quality that blends perfectly with TDE's drifting, tidal productions. "Z" imagines what the world must have sounded like when Schoolboy Q was in a Percocet haze or Lamar was in his swimming pools of liquor.

"Babylon" is yearning digital bass dirge that features Lamar. It's the album's showpiece and feels like that 5 a.m. moment when everyone at the party falls off an ecstasy binge. But the album's reach is as powerful as its depth. The foggy electropop of "Julia" hits like Madonna in a hotboxed DeLorean with a fritzy cassette deck. "Sweet November" inverts the current soul-revival playbook: It's got all the filament glow of the '60s, but SZA gets there with a come-hither rasp, balancing digital haze and analog swing.

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"Z" probably won't define a year in L.A. like "good kid, m.A.A.d. City" did, but it does something just as important. It redefines TDE as not just the best rap label in L.A., but as one of America's most ambitious musical projects, full stop. "Here in your backyard, building a fantasy, [forget] reality," she sings on "Child's Play." SZA and TDE have built their own.

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SZA

"Z" (Top Dawg Entertainment)

Three stars

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