Deconstructing SZA’s ‘The Weekend’

NEO-soul is a bit like how you’d imagine what old soul records sound like if all you really knew was the snippets and samples you heard on conscious hip-hop in the ’90s.

It had some pretty jazzy chords, drum parts that sounded like they might be samples from the ’70s, and singers with distinctive voices who’d grown up with hip-hop. We’re talking Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and D’Angelo.

Recently, ’90s neo-soul has become pretty influential on a strain of R&B today that gets called “alt R&B” or “PBR&B”. Think Frank Ocean or early The Weeknd. It’s increasingly popular – even Aussie Matt Corby has a recent album that’s pretty “alt R&B”.

Where neo-soul was R&B singers fusing the vibe of old soul records with ’90s hip-hop, alternative R&B often fuses the vibe of old soul records with the hip-hop of today. There’s less stuff that sounds like samples, and more beats from programs like Ableton.

Which is where SZA’s ‘The Weekend’ fits in. SZA – real name Solana Rowe – released her second album Ctrl in 2017. Like the 1986 Janet Jackson album also called Control, there’s a boldness and perceptiveness about her takes on modern relationships and what can make them suck. And on ‘The Weekend’ she’s doing some very interesting musical things in a neo-soul vein.

The song is about, in her words, “timesharing a man” with other women and maybe being okay with it – she’s got him on the weekends. It’s a complicated sentiment. Accordingly there’s some complicated chords and beats that set the emotional tone for the song.

Let’s Look At The Beats

AND when I say let’s look at them, I mean with your eyes.

When you listen to music you’re more likely to hear notes on the one beat than on the three beat, more likely to hear it on the three beat than on the two beat, and more likely to hear it on the two beat than an offbeat.

Have a look at a standard rock beat – the kind in ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ by The Ramones – which represents the different beats and off-beats on a grid, with the darker beats being beats you’re more likely to hear a beat on. The rock’n’roll beat is very predictable, straight down the line, with the kick drum hitting on the one beat and the three beat.

 

Now have a look at the beats on ‘The Weekend’ – the one beat often doesn’t have any notes at all. There’s kick drums on off beats.

In the seventh bar of the eight-bar chord sequence that repeats through the song, there’s a prominent melody part on a keyboard which is in triplets. These don’t ordinarily belong in the time signature the rest of the song is in.

When you listen to music, you might not be consciously aware of it, but your brain is actively comparing the music you’re listening to to what is the most likely thing that’s happened in the music you’ve heard in the past.

And when it tries to compare ‘The Weekend’ to the music you’ve heard in the past, your brain struggles to make sense of it.

All of this leaves us feeling a little disoriented. We’re not quite sure when the next beat is going to come, and they hit us when we don’t expect them – there’s points where you get a rapid-fire blast of five hi-hats that feel like they come out of nowhere.

And this is how SZA wants us to feel – the whole “side chick” thing has her feeling a bit disoriented, just like how you feel a bit disoriented listening to the beats.

Waiting To Get To The Weekends

WHILE the production of ‘The Weekend’ sounds slick and modern, the chords underneath actually have a long history.

The anchor of the song – not including the beautiful Stevie Wonder-inspired introduction – is a repeated eight-bar progression played on an electric piano beneath the verse and chorus lyrics. This repetition has a relentless, restless quality. It loops on and on like days of the week, weeks in a month, waiting to get to the weekends.

It goes like this:

The song can get away with only having the same, repeated eight bars of chords because they’re very clever and interesting ones.

The chords also have some extra notes added to them, which gives them their “jazzy” sound, particularly major sevenths, which are often heard in neo-soul songs.

The song starts on a dreamy Emj7 chord that establishes the mood of the song, but soon after moves to a really unexpected place – a Gm7b5 chord, one that doesn’t belong in the key of E, but which gives the song a wistful sadness for a moment.

After this, when SZA sings “the feeling is reckless”, the chords pivot up to an Abm7 where the progression holds. As SZA sings, “…desperate/Getting’ all in your love/Fallin’ all…”, the chords of the electric piano drop away and a little triplet figure plays. Those notes cleverly direct us to the last bar of the section over F#m7 and Bmj7.

This last little movement is called a “ii-V-I turnaround” (two-five-one): the numbers refer to the chords in the scale, and “one” is usually our home base. A “turnaround” is short string of chords that helps to finish off one phrase and takes us to the beginning of another. It’s a musical somersault like a swimmer might do when they reach the end of the pool before starting another lap. Here’s what it looks like close up:

This particular songwriting trick was cemented in the halls of Tin Pan Alley a century before ‘The Weekend’ existed.

Tin Pan Alley was a name given to grouping of buildings in Manhattan, New York, which formed the first “music factories” during the late 19th- and early-to-mid 20th century. It was the hub of song publishing for decades, and successful and important composers and lyricists – George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, and many others– filled the rooms of these buildings with new compositions for movies, musicals and singers.

Many of the songs we would now call “jazz standards” were all written within the few blocks of Tin Pan Alley, along with many pop song formulas still in use today, such as the ii-V-I turnaround.

This classic songwriting technique finds a suitable home in a neo-soul song like ‘The Weekend’. The sophisticated sounds have a thread that connects neo-soul to the 1960s and 1970s soul it was inspired by, and to soul’s long history linking back to jazz and blues styles of the early 20th century.

 

•••

WHEN you listen to a song, you’re listening with decades of experience of listening to music in the background. You have expectations about what usually happens in music, and SZA subverts this, which is part of why the song works so well.

It gives us enough of the indicators for neo-soul, but subverts them with underlying, unpredictable trap-like beats. It gives us some interesting, unexpected chords but then resolves them to something familiar again.

And the way that SZA plays with these expectations goes along very clearly with how she plays with our expectations of how she might view her timesharing relationship.

You’d expect her to be cutting the man down to size for his inability to commit – so many soul songs are about exactly this – but instead in the lyrics she’s simply saying, “This is how things are.”

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