In the five years that followed SZA’s culture-shifting 2017 debut album, Ctrl, the pressure to deliver another ambitious, eclectic project reached a boiling point. Yet somehow, she managed to cut through the noise, surpassing the astronomically high expectations set by Ctrl with her much anticipated follow-up.

When SOS arrived Dec. 9, 2022, on RCA Records and Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), it didn’t just successfully steer clear of the sophomore slump — it elevated her to superstardom. Across its whopping 23 tracks, SZA embarked on a fearless sonic voyage, dipping her toes in gospel, grunge, rap and whatever else she fancied outside of R&B’s boundaries. Similarly, she took her writing up several notches with dynamic, vivid storytelling that tugged deeper at heartache and self-acceptance. And its commercial success has already made history: SOS debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and spent seven consecutive weeks there, making SZA, Taylor Swift and Adele the only three women to rule the all-genre albums chart for that long. The set then returned to No. 1 for an eighth week on Feb. 9 and just claimed a ninth (on the chart dated Feb. 25), boasting more weeks atop the Billboard 200 than any R&B album since Usher’s Confessions ruled for nine nonconsecutive weeks in 2004. SOS‘s nine weeks at No. 1 also gave it the most weeks atop the chart for an album by a woman in nearly seven years, since Adele’s 25.

And yet, despite all that success, she still feels like she has to prove herself.

“Right now, I just have extreme gratitude because I swear to God, I never thought I’d be No. 1 for even a week, let alone seven,” the 33-year-old artist born Solána Imani Rowe tells Billboard in early February as she cruises along the Pacific Coast Highway — a brief moment of reprieve before she really hits the road this spring for her first-ever arena tour.

“SZA is a force,” says Terrence “Punch” Henderson, SZA’s manager and TDE president. “To go seven consecutive weeks at No. 1 is legendary. She’s a true generational artist, a cultural reset, if you will. For her album SOS to blend so many different genres together in a cohesive frame shows her genius and versatility. Then you have the voice, the words, the pain, the growth, the relapsing, the delivery, the stories, etc. … a true masterpiece.”

While the industry and public alike overwhelmingly share Henderson’s sentiment, Billboard’s 2023 Woman of the Year remains prone to self-doubt. Thoughts like “Do I deserve this?” and “I wish I did better” frequently creep into her mind, and she’s working on quieting them. She has already released new music since SOS dropped, by way of her February appearance on the remix of Lizzo’s 2022 song “Special.”

“Manifestation is real,” Lizzo tells Billboard. “I declare 2023 the year of SZA. But SZA has been Woman of the Year for me for at least a decade. I’m always such a fan of her music, a fan of her artistry, but I really love her as a friend. Solána Imani Rowe, you will always be ‘the one.’ ”

And, once she releases the deluxe edition of SOS — which will feature 10 additional tracks and is coming soon — SZA says she’ll be done trying to convince herself that she deserves her flowers.

“I guess I need to stop trying to figure out what it means,” SZA admits, “and start realizing and living in what it is.”

How did you feel after SOS was released? Did you have any hesitations about its reception?

You know when something is really popular, the positive is loud and the negative is loud? I’ve never been quite this popular before, so the negative is also really loud, and it threw me off. I was like, “OK, cool. Noted.” And I tried to figure out what actually resonates with me as a true assessment of my work and what is not true and something I can’t allow myself to internalize. I know people wanted [Ctrl’s] “Broken Clocks,” “Love Galore” and all that other sh-t again, but I departed from that by choice. Not because I couldn’t do that again; it was just because I wanted to grow. I wanted to do something completely different.

It’s hard making music as a Black woman [because] we don’t get the luxury to try something and have it be something that’s genuinely part of us. You have to allow people to get to know different parts of you. Some people may really f–king hate that, and some people might enjoy it. And I’m grateful for those who enjoy it.

Were you surprised that “Kill Bill” — which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 to become your highest-charting song to date — was the SOS song that took off?

I knew it would be something that pissed me off. It’s always a song that I don’t give a f–k about that’s just super easy, not the sh-t that I put so much heart and energy into. “Kill Bill” was super easy — one take, one night.

The chart success of SOS has put you in the same conversation as pop superstars. Is it important for you to be recognized outside of the R&B space?

To even be in the conversation with Taylor [Swift] and Miley [Cyrus], even the fact that our fans are fighting, is ridiculous because it’s like, “How?!” I just really appreciate the opportunity to be in that conversation at all. It’s something I never dreamed of.

What are your thoughts about your upcoming first-ever arena tour and performing this album in front of your fans?

It’s interesting because my other shows were intimate, and I felt like people were really coming to see me. But I know certain people are just coming to see what the hype is about, and that makes me nervous. But I just want to put on the best show that expresses my theatrical side.

I am deeply excited to pop ass and cry and give theater. I want it to feel like a play on Broadway, but more like Suspiria and Cirque du Soleil in the weirdest way. I want it to be smart and exhilarating and exhausting and exciting like a party, but also like a therapy session.

How do you tour an emotionally intense album like SOS? Do you insulate yourself from the material, or does it inevitably dredge up emotions?

I never know. When I was performing “20 Something” before my grandma died, it didn’t hit me the same. And then after my grandma died, I could barely get through it at rehearsal. Who knows what any of these songs will bring up for me in real life? Shooting the video for “Nobody Gets Me” was really f–king sad. I cried a lot. I’m just going to wing it and see.

What does it mean for you to be Billboard’s Woman of the Year?
It really scares me. But I really want to do something with my time in the sun right now. There’s so much I want to do for other people. I need to do something to deserve that in a way that has nothing to do with me, something that’s selfless and uplifts other women, people, period. It makes me feel more responsible than I was before. I feel like I owe everyone so much more than just smiling and getting onstage and waving. Part of it I know is just letting God use me and be myself and letting that be part of the work. But I know that there’s something more that I have to do.

SZA Billboard Cover In Article Photo

SZA photographed by AB + DM on October 11, 2022 at Quixote Studios in Los Angeles.

You were the first woman signed to TDE in 2013. How did you manage to maneuver through the male-dominated label for nearly a decade on your own?

I didn’t mind the lack of female artists. I just felt like I was always the first to do something, and that was frustrating. It was me telling y’all I need hair and makeup because I’m super hands-on, on top of being a woman. I’m making PowerPoints trying to explain why I want to be in this type of publication versus that type of publication.

It was tough, but by the same token, I think all of us grew together at the same time. They never had to do anything like this before, and we were all being so randomly innovative together by trying to figure out what makes sense. And I also liked that they weren’t trying to clean me up and look like anybody else. They were just taking me as I was. That was really priceless, just to express myself visually how I wanted to and without the judgment of “Let’s make her pretty or sparkly and shiny and sterile.”

Who are some women in the music industry whom you look up to?

There’s nobody in the industry that f–ks with me and that I f–k with the way that Lizzo f–ks with me and the way I f–k with her. She never made me feel like because I don’t have a No. 1 song or I [previously] didn’t have a No. 1 album that I wasn’t capable. She’d been telling me that she thought I was the one for years. The way that she thinks of me so highly as a human being and as an artist means so much to me. I just have never met anybody like her in this entire industry.

There’s a lot of women I look up to in general that I don’t know personally, but watching them is incredible. Beyoncé, but who doesn’t look up to Beyoncé? I love Jozzy’s and Starrah’s energy. I love the way Nija is from New Jersey and has been able to transmute her energy from being a writer to an artist. Kehlani’s hella effervescent, and you can just feel the energy when she’s performing. I love Chloe Bailey and her commitment to perfection — I feel like she’s going to be a legend. Even Taylor letting that whole situation go with her masters and then selling all of those f–king records. That’s the biggest “f–k you” to the establishment I’ve ever seen in my life, and I deeply applaud that sh-t.

What does the future look like for SZA?

After I do the deluxe, I’m hoping to be able to accept that this chapter is done. I’m looking forward to actually feeling proud of myself and not just smiling and nodding at accolades but really feeling it internally and knowing that I’m good enough.

sza billboard cover

A version of this story originally appeared in the Feb. 25, 2023, issue of Billboard.