SZA – ‘SOS’ Album Review

Photo Credit: Mary Ellen Matthews

The run-up to SZA’s sophomore effort SOS has been long, unpredictable, and reliably confounding. Its lead single – and SZA’s first solo top-ten hit – “Good Days” arrived almost two years before the rest of the album and wouldn’t enjoy an official music video until March 2021, by which time its momentum had clearly receded. The next single wouldn’t arrive for another year, and the one after that required an almost-as-long wait. When SOS finally arrived, it was the middle of December – when Christmas songs dominated the charts. 

It’s good then that SZA’s immense talent ensures that her music can speak for itself – despite a deeply questionable promotional campaign, SOS became the R&B star’s first chart-topping album, and its newest hit “Kill Bill” may well be about to hit the very top of the Hot 100 too. Listening to that song – an irresistible slice of R&B-pop whose dreamy sounds obscure a dark murder fantasy – it’s striking how everything else about SZA besides her music suddenly seems unimportant. 

The first leg of the Missourian’s sophomore effort is primarily SZA-by-the-numbers – it finds her doing everything we already know she can do and doing it exactly as well as we’ve come to expect. The exception to this is the exceptional “Blind” – a neo-soul meets folk fusion (think half-Sufjan Stevens, half-Lianne La Havas) that by virtue of its disparate influences shouldn’t work, yet miraculously does. Elsewhere, SZA proves that her charms remain limitless even when she’s playing it safe. “Kill Bill,” with its declaration “I’d rather be in jail than alone” is quintessential SZA; capturing longing at its most comically intense. While “Notice Me” has a similar quality, as she contorts herself into any and every shape she deems necessary to maintain the interest of a lover. This is SZA doing what she does best; capturing those moments of lust, longing, and desperation that few want to admit to, but most can relate to. 

SOS’ most exciting moments, however, happen to be concentrated towards the album’s middle and end; where she branches out and explores a wider array of genres – even those she has yet to fully find her footing in. “Smoking on My Ex Pack” is the LP’s most straightforward hip-hop moment; exuding classic ’90s rap charm and proving that SZA could make a great album entirely within this lane. The Phoebe Bridgers feature “Ghost In The Machine” is far, far better than the album’s earlier feature with Don Toliver, while “Conceited” showcases a reassuringly, uncharacteristically self-assured and independent SZA (though, there is no forgiving the lyric “All these b*tches is minions, despicable like, ooh”). 

Elsewhere, SZA’s new ventures don’t serve her quite as well. Pop-punk number “F2F” offers an intriguing change of pace, but though it aims for the heights of early-2000s Avril Lavigne it instead more closely resembles the Canadian’s decidedly more middling 2020s output. One can’t help but wonder whether the song was a last-minute addition to the tracklist; a transparent attempt to replicate the commercial successes of MGK, Gayle, and Olivia Rodrigo.

On “Nobody Gets Me” SZA borrows from the overly-polished, tasteful pop soundscape once reserved for former Disney stars trying to prove their newfound maturity. It’s a confounding choice for many reasons, but not least because it has the unfortunate effect of making SZA’s lyrics about depending on unreliable men sound like motivational messages rather than the seedy confessionals they really are. It would be wrong to over-emphasize these relatively small imperfections on an album that often reaches great heights, but it gets at a fundamental truth; which is that with a few more cuts made, the exhausting, overlong SOS could be a truly great album, rather than a merely good one.

Written by: Tom Williams

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