SZA has mastered the art of the inner monologue, transforming deeply personal observations into gilded songs that feel intimate, relatable, and untouchable, all at once. On her remarkable debut album, CTRL, she narrated these contradictions through warbled melodies that threw modern R&B and pop song structure out the window, letting her voice weave in, over, and through the beats, in a style that recalled the jazzy structure of Joni Mitchell and the technical prowess of Minnie Riperton.
Not having a traditional formula, it turned out, was a winning tack: CTRL was certified triple platinum this August, reflecting both its continued relevance and fans’ salivatory desperation for a follow-up five years later. Of course, she’s been busy in the time since, having dropped 16 singles or collabs—including the Oscar-nominated Black Panther track “All the Stars,” with Kendrick Lamar—an album’s worth of material unto itself, plus a small handful of wildly acidic videos like “Good Days” and “Shirt.” She had the summer of 2021 in a chokehold with the record-breaking cellophane candy that is “Kiss Me More,” with Doja Cat. She’s filming a movie. She dropped some Crocs. She taught herself to play musical bowls. Like, damn.
The cover of SOS depicts SZA, a former marine biology major, perched on a diving board surrounded by the deep blue ocean, her face pointed contemplatively at the sky. She was inspired by a 1997 photograph of Princess Diana on Mohamed Al Fayed’s yacht taken one week before her death and said she wanted to pay homage to the “isolation” it conveyed. On SOS, she feels like a superwoman who deserves the world one minute, and a depressive second-stringer sacrificing her well-being for garbage men the next. She counteracts the millennial Bad Bitch/Sad Girl dichotomy (tale as old as time) by filling in the vast emotional space between. The album opens with the Morse code distress call and a sample of the Gabriel Hardeman Delegation’s 1976 gospel exhortation “Until I Found the Lord (My Soul Couldn’t Rest),” which lead her into a muscular opus of self-determination, singing in a rap cadence/breath-control flex about how she’s simply over the “fuckshit.” This opening title track sets up a kind of thesis for most of the album: that even amid self-doubt, she’s gloved up, in the ring, a heavyweight champ looking for the belt.
We already know SZA’s dedication to her work is indefatigable—amid public label woes with her longtime record label TDE and her major-label partner RCA, she wrote hundreds of songs for what became SOS, so culling it to just 23 is, in context, an exercise in restraint. At the same time, SOS is a clear document of how extensively SZA has sharpened her songwriting since the exquisite CTRL, how she’s become an even more exacting lyricist and imaginative musician. While placing herself firmly in the tradition of R&B, she’s forcefully blasé about genre tropes. On SOS, she belts her face off on an instant classic “fuck you” number (“I Hate U”) alongside a savage rap track that recalls the glory days of physical mixtapes (“Smokin on my Ex Pack”) and, perhaps improbably, a country song with a pop-punk chorus about revenge sex (“F2F”). This can sometimes land in the mushy middle—“Ghost in the Machine,” her breathlessly anticipated collab with Phoebe Bridgers, finds them mirroring each others’ vocal timbres over glitch electronica complete with synthetic harps courtesy of frequent collaborators Rob Bisel and Carter Lang. And “Special,” a track about body dysmorphia, sounds like she was writing from a Swiftian persona, à la her loosie “Joni,” yet comes off a bit pat sandwiched between a compendium of songs where she richly depicts the same sentiment.