It's been five years since New Jersey's SZA emerged on the global Hip-Hop and R&B scene with the multi-Grammy nominated sensation Ctrl. Numerous singles, collaborations, and projects have been released in the years since. There have also been forays into film and tv soundtrack territory, most prominently on Black Panther with the Kendrick Lamar collab, All the Stars. That track brought about an additional Grammy nomination and one for the Academy Awards.
But as Ctrl landed as a genre-redefining phenomenon, positioning SZA as an alternative R&B girl next door, its follow-up has been long in the making. Inspired by indie music, trap, and lo-fi chill as much as neo-soul, Ctrl also showcased SZA's songwriting chops as among the best in the business. The album has been a staple of Billboard charts since its release (the first black woman to spend nearly 5 consecutive years on it). That said, as it came and stayed and subsequent projects did the same, rumours of never receiving a follow-up increased. A label beef and an increasingly volatile release timeline did these rumours no favours. That is, until December 9, when SOS was finally released.
Before the music even starts, twisting through genre with the confidence searched for throughout Ctrl, its cover strikes immediately. While Ctrl saw an upstart SZA, comfortably dressed, casually surrounded by throwback desktop monitors, SOS was different. It elicits the famous Princess Diana image of a lone princess at the very edge of a super yacht diving board, as well as her own life.
On SOS, SZA is in a similar position, evoking emotions of a surveillance state and life in the public eye. A snapshot of an artist and woman, with nary a place for respite, albeit with a tranquillity its photographic inspiration does not. What comes out is an album of epic-scope (23 tracks), stacked with A-list guest appearances (Phoebe Bridgers, Travis Scott, the late Ol' Dirty Bastard, et al.) and a sensibility of innermost emotion, conflicting as they are. Ultimately, SOS is a career-solidifying experience and artistic creation of an artist singular in voice and industry position.
All the funny shit aside
I just want what's mine - SZA
implores SZA on the album's eponymous opener.
Setting the tone that this is no longer the young-woman-finding-her-way-in-the-world narrative. Instead, the world has been found, and it's as disappointing and challenging as ever. From socially imposed bipolarity to gaze politics (male, celebrity, or media), SZA connects it all through the tension of conflicting emotions and genre.
SOS is confessional, a juxtaposed manuscript on life, love and fame. Take the ballad Blind or the guitar-driven Far. As one reminds us of the journey of life and love, the latter is a declaration of frustration when the road seems to have an end. Elsewhere, there is the pop-punk F2F, co-written with Lizzo. With an "I fuck him 'cause I miss you" chorus, F2F is a perfect example of SZA's penchant for untraditional song structures and unexpected genre mashups. It is as Beyonce as it is Paramore. There is rap here, too, mainly from a trio of Used, Forgiveness, and Smoking on my Ex Pack. With this trio, we are reminded of her place on the introspective, new-Cali sound of Top Dawg Entertainment, rapping a stream-of-consciousness flow over appropriately hazy beats.
Elsewhere, the album highlight Gone Girl sees SZA at her most pop. Then, the cinematic Kill Bill at her most homicidal ("If I can't have you, no one should"). The beloved singles, Good Days, and Shirt teased and released in 2020, are also present on the album.
SOS and SZA's wider, two-album discography is the stuff of dissertations. Theoretical deconstructions on experience at both its tangible and abstract levels. A self-aware selection in the age of over-sharing and polyamory, SOS is the last truly great album of 2022.