Posted By Smple Staff

Album Review: SOS, SZA

If hell is other people, then heaven is missing them. As messy as our breakups, fallouts and moral scuffles can be, at least we know we care enough to think about those friends and partners we’ve lost. That’s clarity, maybe. Peace. We’re in love with a memory. We can reshape those relationships to suit who we are now. And now. And perhaps after a sad wank. On her second album, SZA builds herself up so high, she scrapes the clouds, like an island volcano about to vomit with rage. SOS is an affirmation of loneliness, of hurled phones and me-time in the bath, and sounds like a woman finally ready to conquer us all. 

She’s hardly been missing, but five years have passed since the beloved CNTRL. We’ve heard SZA with The Weeknd, Khaled, Doja Cat and Cardi B, pretty much always being the best guest on anything, and she performed for pandemic relief in 2020, giving the craggy ass that is Jon Bon Jovi’s voice a reason to hide in the green room. Sporadic singles, of course, like ‘Good Days’ and ‘Shirt’, but no grand return. Just more hearsay and wrangling at Top Dawg. The label might be to blame. If it isn’t, that actually makes more sense, because SZA has always been mildly surprised at what she’s done with her life so far and that people enjoy it. In interview after interview, she comes across as a goofball, the girl who wandered into music from her mates’ encouragement, and then, oopsie daisy, found a Grammy in her hands. As confrontational as her lyrics can be, she’s one of the most relatable r’n’b starlets we have: somebody who wants to watch Narcos with gin, chats to Hot 97 from her duvet, and uses words like “regular degular schmegular.” If she’d gone all in on being a superstar, that would’ve been the weird move; she’s been talking up quitting the music biz altogether for half a decade. 

So here, at last, we receive CNTRL’s followup, and it reminds you that SZA could be an absolute monster if she wished – an artist with the talent, maturity and musical instincts to be everywhere all the time. That she doesn’t seem to want it is either endearing or frustrating, depending on your hopes for more albums like this. And it would be a shame if we never got something as good as SOS again. In a banner year for female soul, it stands toe to toe with releases from Ravyn Lenae and Yaya Bey, beating them for breadth at the very least. What a damn great Christmas present. 

Like Jhene Aiko’s superlative Trip, SOS narrates a retreat into the self, figuring out what relationships meant and mean to the artist at its center. Yet whereas Aiko’s opus tracked a psychedelic voyage into the bitter heart of grief, SZA’s LP often finds her licking a boy’s blood from her nails, venomously determined to be incredible on her own. “You push me past my own capacity,” she warns on ‘Seek & Destroy’. “Permission to crash, collecting damages.” Across 23 tracks, she throws darts and promises at anyone who doubts her, distracting some truly deep pain with kamikaze fantasies. The opener, ‘SOS’, bursts with excitement at her reemergence. “Coming back, this ‘aint canned shit / I’m organic with my fresh squeezed / I’m dumping like press squeeze / I’m horny like, ‘Suck these.’” Chopping a gospel sample from the Gabriel Hardeman Delegation, it’s a punch to the kidneys, reminding you how slick and sick her vocal range and references are. 

Yet the album is a mess of insecurities. Whenever SZA appears to have everything figured out, she blows it apart. ‘Kill Bill’ straddles both halves of the spectrum. “I might kill my ex,” she ponders, the melody lifting and sinking like a daydream. By the third verse, she’s really done it. A bass bops with murderous confidence. “Rather be in hell than alone,” she concludes, surrounded by dead bodies. It’s a moment of vulnerability that swiftly vanishes. 

Other songs fight to be mean and iconic before you realize there’s more going on. ‘F2F’, surely the sore thumb in the tracklist, tunes a band up for a rocker that Avril Lavigne could’ve hopped on in 2003. It’s seedier, though. SZA is alone and aroused. She wants man ass. Only a comet would get in the way of her poon, and even then, she’d probably just drag the guy closer to the crash site. But, as she reminds us, “I fuck him ‘cos I miss you.” Without her impeccable phrasing — a syncopated delight that never quite does what you expect it to — the chorus might be a little turgid. But since it’s SZA, you feel every twist of heartache, every scream to be heard. Avril Lavigne can’t do that. She’s a neutered squirrel compared to this crack at pop punk. 

‘F2F’ comprises SOS’ stellar mid section, a run of songs from ‘Blind’ to ‘Too Late’ that only gets better with each listen. Let’s start with ‘Blind’, a worried glance at self analysis, regressing into a toddler’s falsetto as she laments unemerged love. The acoustic guitar is tastefully bare, the strings low in the mix like they’re scared of upsetting her. By comparison, ‘Used’ is perfectly fine but doesn’t have the sense of a girl looking at her feet for strength. From there, though, we’re thrown earworm after earworm. ‘Snooze’ drags pleasurably on four-to-the-floor drums. ‘Smoking On My Ex Pack’ tosses SZA in the rap game again as she leaps nimbly over bars. ‘Ghost In The Machine’ has taken some flack for the so-so Phoebe Bridgers feature, which is fair, but while Pheeb’s inclusion doesn’t quite fit, the “disaster/after” hook absolutely slams, one of this projects’ purest pop pleasures.

Good luck singing along to SOS, though. SZA’s voice is something else. High, subdued or vacillating madly, it’s never less than arresting and often does the impossible. ‘Gone Girl’, the record’s centerpiece, sounds like an instant classic, and much of that is down to her delivery. Just listen to the slight skip ahead of the beat on the second “gone”, the low-lying vibrato, the peak and key change. Also — the whole track is gold. Kudos to drummer Stix from The Social Experiment, who brings everything to rest with jazzy tickles on his hi-hat. 

If any of the album disappoints, it’s probably the final leg, which can’t compete with the bangers leading to it. ‘Open Arms’ is almost a Mariah Carey tribute and gives Travis Scott some airtime, perhaps hoping we’ll wrap our arms around him again too. ‘I Hate U’ has a chillier groove but wanders around looking for a memorable line. None of this matters much. SZA has made around two thirds of a five-star comeback, and if she wants to leave the industry, we’ll be sending our own SOS signals into the void, begging more artists to sound so strong and tender and mesmerizing. 

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