SZA’s lengthy, ambitious, and opulent new album enhances her standing as a generational genius and a creator of unforgettable moments.
SZA has mastered the technique of the inner monologue, turning her private views into glittering songs that simultaneously feel close-knit, sympathetic, and untouchable. On her remarkable debut album, CTRL, she narrated these contradictions through warbled melodies that disregarded contemporary R&B and pop song structure, letting her voice weave in, over, and through the beats in a manner that was reminiscent of Joni Mitchell’s jazzy structure and Minnie Riperton’s technical prowess.
She has released 16 songs or collaborations since then, including the Oscar-nominated Black Panther song “All the Stars,” with Kendrick Lamar, as well as a few extremely acidic music videos including “Good Days” and “Shirt.” Of course, she has been busy. With the world-record-breaking cellophane candy that is “Kiss Me More,” with Doja Cat, she had the summer of 2021 in a chokehold. She is producing a film. She left some Crocs behind. She learned to play the musical bowls on her own. I mean, damn.
SZA, a former marine biology major, is shown on the cover of SOS sitting on a diving board in the middle of a deep blue ocean with her head cocked in thought. She claimed that a 1997 image of Princess Diana aboard Mohamed Al Fayed’s boat, shot only one week before she passed away, served as inspiration and that she wanted to honour the “isolation” it suggested. On SOS, she alternates between feeling like a superwoman who deserves the entire world and a depressed second-stringer who sacrifices her wellbeing for jerks.
By bridging the enormous emotional gap between, she breaks the millennial Bad Bitch/Sad Girl dichotomy (story as old as time). The album begins with a Morse code distress call and a sample of the Gabriel Hardeman Delegation’s gospel anthem “Until I Found the Lord (My Soul Couldn’t Rest),” which propels her into a powerful opus of self-determination in which she sings in a rap cadence and breath-control flex about how she’s simply over the “fuckshit.” This album’s opening title track establishes a sort of thesis: that despite self-doubt, she is gloved up and fighting for the title in the ring.
SZA’s unwavering commitment to her craft is already well known; in the midst of controversy surrounding her longtime record label TDE and her major-label partner RCA, she wrote hundreds of songs for SOS, making the decision to choose just 23 songs a show of restraint. SZA has significantly improved her songwriting since the beautiful CTRL, becoming a more rigorous writer and creative musician. SOS is a demonstrative example of this. She firmly identifies with R&B tradition while also being blasé about common genre conventions.
She firmly identifies with R&B tradition while also being blasé about common genre conventions. She performs a violent rap track that harkens back to the heyday of tangible mixtapes (“Smokin on my Ex Pack”), an immediate classic “fuck you” number (“I Hate U”), and, perhaps surprisingly, a country song with a pop-punk chorus about revenge sex (“F2F”). This can occasionally fall into the mushy middle; for example, in their eagerly anticipated collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers, “Ghost in the Machine,” they duplicate each other’s vocal timbres over glitch electronica that includes synthetic harps provided by longtime collaborators Rob Bisel and Carter Lang. Additionally, “Special,” a song about bodily dysmorphia, resembles a Swiftian identity similar to her loose single “Joni “.
But woe be to her petty ex-boyfriends. She sings the lyric, “I might kill my ex/Not the best idea,” on the bait-and-switch stalker lullaby “Kill Bill,” putting all her worst ideas on paper while a strolling electric bass holds her hand. On a calming, string-filled ballad appropriate for a water sign, “Blind” sings, “You still talking about babies/I’m still takin’ a Plan B,” and “my pussy precedes me.” Another turbulent acoustic ballad that brings to mind “Fade Into You” is “Nobody Gets Me,” which is played on an AM radio in Nashville.
SZA maintains her independence despite exerting a great deal of emotional energy. A freestyle by Ol’ Dirty Bastard, taken from vintage documentary film captured by renowned R&B producer Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, closes SOS. On an album where she does what she does best while displaying her artistic variety, the sample, which wound up in “Goin’ Down” on Return to the 36 Chambers, bookends her last statement.
Over a gritty boom-bap, she raps, “Give a fuck what you prefer.” I’m too deep to argue with a typical nerd, as the song goes. Who among us hasn’t told ourselves, “damn bitch you so thirsty,” as she sings on the eminently quotable “Shirt”? Maturity looks good on her. Her music and persona have inspired such love in people precisely because of that peculiar blend of self-assurance and pettiness. Although SZA has extraordinary talent, you might also know someone who has some of it. Perhaps even you.
Listen to SOS and let us know what you think
SZA’s SOS Tracklist
2. “Kill Bill”
3. “Seek & Destroy”
5. “Love Language”
7. “Used” feat. Don Toliver
9. “Notice Me”
10. “Gone Girl”
11. “Smoking on My Ex Pack”
12. “Ghost in the Machine” feat. Phoebe Bridgers
14. “Nobody Gets Me”
17. “Too Late”
20. “Open Arms” feat. Travis Scott
21. “I Hate U”
22. “Good Days”
23. “Forgiveless” feat. Ol’ Dirty Bastard
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