After a lengthy five-and-a-half-year wait with a rollout dating back as early as September 2020, SZA fans finally got to open an early Christmas present with the release of SOS, a follow-up to her transcendent Ctrl album that brought a refreshing new voice to the R&B genre and ignited the summer of 2017. With more than an hour of new material, SZA’s no-holds-barred lyrical approach when tackling matters of the heart hasn’t changed much, but the conclusions she draws from her experiences go to both extremes – some feel a lot more mature as she turns her focus towards healing, but one of the first couple tracks we hear is a murder fantasy about her ex. Pushing her seemingly limitless voice to new heights and experimenting with some spellbinding vocal runs, the album’s overall vibe is a little more aggressive and percussion-heavy to match her lyrical barbs. Like Bad Bunny’s earlier this year, it’s a 23-track album that never gets tiresome, as SZA’s unique writing style and delivery remains captivating throughout.
The project certainly opens with an explosion on its brief title track, featuring SZA delivering a belted tirade with some of her most impressive vocal moments and attacking the words like a rapper. Demonstrating a wide range of her talents in under two minutes, she introduces listeners to the album’s themes of turbulent relationships and searching for healing, opening up in a more unhealthy, chaotic zone before taking a step back to look at the bigger picture. The first couple tracks, especially “Kill Bill,” reflect that area as SZA continues to “choose violence,” as she says on “Low.” Despite the track’s sweet sounds as SZA breezes through some beautiful harmonies, the lyrics reveal her contemplating murder as a way to deal with her problems over some shuffling percussion and classic-sounding traditional soul instrumentation. “Seek & Destroy” and “Low” find the instrumentals getting more aggressive to match her acerbic lyrics, both demonstrating just how much she’s been pushing herself artistically since Ctrl’s release. The squeaky falsettos on the former are engaging and experimental, while “Low” essentially finds her tackling a Travis Scott or Playboi Carti-style psychedelic rap banger. It doesn’t showcase as much of her unique talents as most of the tracks here, keeping her voice in an appropriately low range while getting a little trendier in her delivery, but it’s a leap that varies the sound.
“Love Language” is the track where we start to transition into the album’s main thesis of discovering self-love, though some of the former tendencies still creep in. Asking for communication and transparency, it’s a track perfect for future slow dances as the trap hi-hat rolls leading up to a slow-moving but undeniably rhythmic pocket of finger-snaps brings makes it impossible not to move. Her speedy triplet flows on top make it all the more infectious. Single “Blind” finds SZA remaining in her analytical mode, examining why she needs external validation, unable to find what she needs within herself. Over some raw acoustics, SZA brings some laser-focused flows in a whispery tone, but the chorus of filtered and layered vocal runs in her striking falsetto manages to induce chills every time.
A common criticism of SZA’s music often seems to be its disjointed nature, but there’s nobody better at making music that grows on you – all of these tracks are just streams of consciousness waiting for you to memorize every little unique inflection and cadence that she makes – even just something like the unusual way she says “Scarface” on the overwhelmingly sweet track “Snooze,” which kicks off a back-to-back stretch where she shows that she might actually have a heart underneath it all. With a breathier tone and a convincingly devoted delivery, she sings about not wanting to miss any moments before foregoing the games and emoting “I don’t want to be your girlfriend, I just want to be your person” on follow-up “Notice Me,” which coasts on a near-reggae instrumental. The track “Used” continues to show off her impressive pen – the central lyric “I been used to being used like this” is one of those you’re surprised nobody else has used before – as SZA sings about the difficulties of healing when the world is on fire around her. Touching on racial injustice, Don Toliver appears to complement her on the hook as two of the most recognizable voices on the planet combine. “Gone Girl” contains a great flip of Hall & Oates’ “She’s Gone” on the chorus that finds SZA channelling the stadium-sized energy of the original over some hard-hitting piano notes, adding on some truly spellbinding vocal runs along the way. The very next track finds her rapping during an interlude, before inviting Phoebe Bridgers onto the following one, “Ghost In The Machine.” For how much the whole album carries the same vibe, it’s impressive how many disparate worlds she ends up pulling from. SZA and Bridgers are oddly similar, descending onto the track with the same delicate tone and exasperated attitude while the two yearn for humanity in a digitized world.
With all of the sonic surprises, there’s no bigger one than “F2F,” which can only be described as a mashup of pop-punk and country, apparently co-written by Lizzo to add to the chaos. SZA’s increased vocal strength finds her able to handle the belted chorus over crunchy guitars unexpectedly well, and despite it not being her strongest suit in comparison to the more subdued tracks, it’s a great diversion in the album’s middle ground. It leads into one of the most tender and heartwarming tracks on the project, as SZA finally gives us the details of her mysterious fiancé and the end of their relationship on the track “Nobody Gets Me.” Only SZA could create a song like this with the kind of blunt vulgarity near the beginning, but that’s exactly what made her such a refreshing force. A deeply moving track, she walks us through the proposal story and the experience of losing a connection with the only person who she felt truly understood her. In between two show stoppers, “Conceited” is a shorter one with some innovative synth sounds as SZA sings about betting on herself and gaining confidence before the knockout punch of “Special.” Touching on her various insecurities, it seems like SZA tried her hardest to become the “Normal Girl” she sang about on Ctrl in order to please a partner, ending up regretting shedding the quirks that made her so unique. It’s great to hear her evolved perspective on an album about discovering emotional maturity. The track “Too Late” has one of the most instantly memorable melodies on the project, as SZA continues to look at the pros and cons of her past, not overlooking the toxic energy anymore as she looks for what’s best for her.
Before a series of collaborations and older singles at the album’s conclusion, “Far” feels like a bit of a follow-up to “Special” in the more positive place SZA reaches by the end – not needing anyone to tell her that she’s special anymore. Of the singles, “Shirt” appears first. After years of teasing and hype, it felt a little disappointing on impact – the melody doesn’t feel as natural and effortless as many of her tracks – but it’s still her trademark style at work. “I Hate U” and “Good Days,” however, still hold up extremely well. There’s something about the more upfront production style of the former that makes it stand out in the midst of the album’s subdued, wavy tones, and it’s lyrically hilarious as well. The shimmering “Good Days” feels like an appropriate one to associate with the positivity at the end. “Open Arms” sees SZA link up with Travis Scott once again, reaching the point of complete devotion and free-flowing love over a great acoustic riff and old-school hip-hop percussion, while “Forgiveless” offers a final twist as SZA throws an ODB freestyle over a Bjork sample in the way that only she would think of.
After so many years where it seemed like the typically unreliable singer might never release this project, now that it’s here and this good it almost makes me satisfied to put her in the Frank Ocean camp of singers you never truly expect anything from, but every so often a masterpiece just materializes and you thank the amount of time it must have taken conceptualizing it. SZA just solidifies her reputation as one of the best talents out right now.
Favourite Tracks: Nobody Gets Me, I Hate U, Open Arms, Special, Gone Girl
Least Favourite Track: Low