Radio 1's head of music Chris Price on how the station supercharged SZA's rise in the UK

Radio 1's head of music Chris Price on how the station supercharged SZA's rise in the UK

As we approach the end of the first quarter, SZA’s album SOS (RCA/Top Dawg) is one of the biggest of 2023 so far.

It’s performance is all the more impressive because there has been no physical edition - although SZA has spoken about plans for a deluxe version with 10 new tracks. 

In the latest edition of Music Week, we speak to RCA executives Sej Jheeta (marketing manager/A&R) and Luke Smith (digital marketing manager) about the UK chart breakthrough for SZA, as well as the power of TikTok for the US R&B star. 

Released in December 2022, SOS is currently on 123,753 ‘sales’ (Official Charts Company), largely based on streams. The 2023 total so far is 82,816, which puts SOS at No.3 overall behind The Weeknd’s The Highlights and Taylor Swift’s Midnights. Based on streaming alone, SOS has actually outperformed Midnights in 2023.

While SZA has been a long-term success in the UK - including a Wireless Festival performance in 2022 and 2021 Doja Cat collaboration Kiss Me More (No.3 peak, 1,223,116 sales to date) - there has been a commercial leap for the artist on this album campaign. SZA’s 2017 album CTRL only peaked at No.45 last year with the release of a deluxe edition, although it has amassed sales to date of 225,644 (including 18,227 physical copies).

SZA’s single Kill Bill has also been a blockbuster release in 2023. It’s currently at No.3 overall for the year to date behind Miley Cyrus’ Flowers and Escapism by Raye feat. 070 Shake. Kill Bill has sales to date of 543,380 based on almost 66 million streams in the UK.

SZA has also secured a further hit in 2023 with Snooze, which has peaked at No.36 (119,728 sales to date). It follows chart success in 2021/2022 for SOS tracks Good Days (No.13 peak, 621,678), I Hate U (No.38, 241,838) and Shirt (No.17, 217,927). 

Low is the latest track making its mark in the Top 100 (106,304). When that deluxe version does drop, expect more new SZA music to flood the chart.

SZA secured playlists at BBC Radio 1, 1Xtra, Kiss, Kiss Fresh, Capital FM and Capital Xtra on this campaign. BBC Radio 1 currently has SZA on its A List in the form of Lizzo’s Special remix. 

Here, to reflect on the increasing success for SZA in the UK, head of music Chris Price reveals how the network has been a long-term champion of the artist…

Radio 1 has been a key supporter of SZA for this campaign. What is it about this album, and Kill Bill in particular, that’s helped it connect so well for your audience? 

“We’ve been on a long journey with SZA on this album, first playlisting Good Days over two years ago in January 2021, which eventually rose to our A List. This was followed by I Hate U later that year, and then Shirt late last year, both of which also made it to our A List. 

“We found that SZA was tapping into a melodic R&B sound that our audience was loving, with great pop radio singles that we could put our full support behind. When the album and Kill Bill were released, we instantly saw our audience reaction with the single going straight into the Official Singles Chart Top 20 at a time when the chart is full of Christmas songs.”

Although it’s a streaming hit, airplay has also been crucial - does Kill Bill show how radio can help to elevate an established artist?

“We feel it does. We added Kill Bill straight to our A List as we believed in SZA and this track so much, and it is definitely a song that benefits from repeat plays as it has that incredibly catchy hook. By playing the song so much it meant that we were able to shine a light on SZA as an artist to a section of our audience that doesn’t listen to her, or R&B music, as much as her core fanbase.”

There was a debate about the absence of UK R&B at the BRITs - how does an artist such as SZA show the strength and commercial potential for the genre?

“The R&B scene in the UK has an extremely rich history, and artists like SZA show that the appetite is there for the music, but that it takes a concerted effort across all media to get the music to as many people as possible.

“At Radio 1 we have proactively supported both UK and US R&B, adding Jorja Smith and Mahalia to the Radio 1 Brit List, as well as supporting US artists such as SZA and Summer Walker on our playlist. With FLO winning BBC Radio 1’s Sound Of 2023, there is clearly an extremely healthy appetite for this music in the UK.”

Subscribers can read our full interview with RCA’s team on the SZA campaign here.


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