By: Tommy “T-Rod” Rodriguez
“All the petty shit aside, All the funny shit aside, I just want what’s mine” songstress SZA proclaims on “SOS,” the intro of this album of the same name. It’s been a long time since we’ve heard from SZA on a studio album, with 2017’s CTRL being her last release. SZA hasn’t been quiet since 2017, of course – she’s won a Grammy and been nominated for many others, has maintained a healthy and active fanbase, and has teased towards this record with several singles. I wasn’t exactly surprised when SOS was revealed to be 23-tracks long, as the many styles of the singles + an album drought meant that this album was gonna have to be huge.
And in many ways, I think it was worth the wait. SOS shows that SZA is incredibly talented at portraying genuine love alongside toxic lust, her performances have gotten better, her production choices more eclectic. There are a few things that hold this behemoth release back for me, but I think this is still a great project.
To begin with SOS’s strengths, I think the record is at its best when SZA’s doing what she does best: eclectic lyrical and instrumental choices that combine for a unique experience. Songs in the first leg of the album especially showcase that SZA hasn’t lost her touch over the past years. “Snooze” and “Love Language” show that she is a master of the sinister and sensual, especially over the album’s minimal production. Sometimes, all you need for a SZA song to hit is a simple groove and a shifting melody, and she drops heaters like this all over SOS. In that regard, “Shirt” is a great teaser for the album, sinister-sounding track where SZA deconstructs a toxic relationship where she seems to admit to have some blame for.
Speaking on toxicity, a lot of discussion on the lyrics centers on their destructiveness, both to SZA and those she sings about. I tend to agree, as songs like “Seek and Destroy” or “I Hate U” have this love/hate aspect that make them a little uncomfortable at first…but they cover toxicity pretty tastefully and are great songs at their core. “Kill Bill” kicks this theme off, thriving on how SZA takes an atmospheric groove and turns it into a spooky display of murderous intent. “F2F” is probably one of my favorite tracks here, a mix of pop, R&B and rock that is egregious with how toxicity can warp someone’s perspective when their heart is broken. Everything here slaps, from the fiery hook to the guitar riffs that drone in the background.
“F2F” is also a great introduction to something I really like about SOS: SZA is interested in progressing her sound, not stagnating. Some truly talented artists suffer from being boxed into a certain sound, especially that of their breakout project. SZA did not want to make a CTRL 2; instead you can tell she spent the past few years experimenting with and expanding her bag. “SOS” and “Low” feature SZA mixing rapping and singing in a seamless fashion, while never sacrificing the watery aesthetic or her core catchiness. “Forgiveless” is a Wu-Tang-esque rap banger, complete with Ol’ Dirty Bastard samples and a fantastic verse from SZA to close out the dark themes of the record. SZA takes more influence than just that though. “Nobody Gets Me” and “Ghost In the Machine” see SZA utilize indie rock tools for some fantastic ballads, with the former having one of her best singing performances period, and the latter being a very raw commentary on love in a digital age. Phoebe Bridgers on the track is a very left-field feature, but her and SZA have great chemistry.
Now, while I have a lot of praise for SOS, I have to admit there are some things that I feel hold it back as from being truly fantastic. While I appreciate SZA’s pen for the most part, there are a few songs that feel ghostwritten by social media. I know that’s a weird argument, but calling someone “pick-me” on a song or naming a track “Smoking on My Ex Pack” feels very trendy…and may not be timeless as the years pass on. I feel like the best music stands the test of time, and while this song covers modern dating and toxicity very well, I feel like some of the terminology or situations described on songs like “Blind” or “Kill Bill” may not age well. Who knows, maybe I’ll be wrong; at the moment, they’re both great songs for me, but a few years down the line I’m not sure how I’ll feel.
In that same breath, I may enjoy many of the tracks here, but as the album passes “Nobody Gets Me,” I feel like the tracklist gets a bit inconsistent. Songs like “Shirt” and “Special” are beautiful, some of the best songs here, but other tracks here cover ground or aesthetic ideas that were previously introduced in the album. SOS is almost movie length at its 23-track run, so when moments like these run by I feel how long it is…maybe with some edits the tracklist would be more efficient. Even then, this is a minor critique. I’m so goddamn happy SZA dropped 23 tracks; now everyone can find some new bops for their playlists and get put onto an incredible artist.
All in all, I really liked SOS. I’m not sure where it stands overall in the year 2022, but it’s definitely one of my favorite releases in the R&B and pop spheres, mixing in SZA’s great songwriting and performances with some truly unique production chops. While it may have been too long for me, I think SOS is an experience worth having. SZA begins this album saying she wanted what was hers, and I think what she deserves is her flowers. Check it out, if you haven’t!
Best Tracks: “SOS,” “Kill Bill,” ” Low,” “Love Language,” “Snooze,” “Gone Girl,” “Ghost In the Machine,” “F2F,” “Nobody Gets Me,” “Special,” “Shirt,” “I Hate U,” “Forgiveless”