Few sophomore albums are preceded by the kind of devoted anticipation that surrounded SZA’s ‘SOS’. Since the release of her now-seminal debut ‘Ctrl’ in 2017 – an alternative R&B album that, five years later, continues to feel as relatable as it does quietly glamorous – it has not once left the Billboard 200. Such a rare accolade is not only testament to the ever-deepening allure of SZA’s saccharine vocals, sublimely intuitive inflections and scintillating lo-fi beats, but to the affecting vulnerability of sincere lyrics that fluttered amongst honeyed melodies like candid text messages.
It was a debut that captured the malaise of someone who would go on to redefine the image of an R&B singer – one whose free-spirited artistry made her feel more like the goofy girl-next-door than a chart-topping superstar. But in spite of the expectation for a follow-up that would be everything ‘Ctrl’ was and then some, this record’s sedentary release timeline is just one mark of a deeply assured artist who appeared indifferent to expectation.
‘SOS’, then, unsurprisingly finds SZA even more creatively uninhibited, perhaps liberated in the knowledge that this may well be her last record, having recently questioned the sustainability of “chasing after superstardom”. Still raw with familiar pangs of yearning, the singer rejects the ‘bigger person’ trope, unapologetically channelling her resentment into pissed off deviances. It’s the typically playful side that emanates in early highlight ‘Kill Bill’, contrasting dark confessions (“I just killed my ex / I still love him though / rather be in hell than alone”) with cool beats and twangy strings, mirrored on the sharp and sleek ‘Seek & Destroy’ (“Now that I’ve ruined everything, I’m so fuckin’ free”).
This heroic bitterness reemerges in the unlikely indie-punk eruption of ‘F2F’, roaring atop grungy guitars that she gets a “rise out of watchin’ your fall”. Plenty of left-field moments follow on the gently bleak ‘Special’ and cynical ‘Ghost In The Machine’, in which SZA aches that she’s “cravin’ humanity”, followed by a haunting, trembling guest verse from Phoebe Bridgers. There’s also the uncharacteristically downbeat Travis Scott feature on ‘Open Arms’, while plenty more genre-fusing moments are found on the stinging rap flow of ‘Smoking On My Ex Pack’ and the trap-indebted ‘Low’.
Even amongst the new, there’s still traces of ‘Ctrl’’s sultry, luscious groove throughout, from the pulse of ‘Love Language’, which samples 2020 single ‘Hit Different’, her signature candied lilt on the Don Toliver-featuring ‘Used’, or the vocal ache and sensual sway of ‘Gone Girl’, in which she sings that “I need your touch, not your scrutiny”. Meanwhile, the devastating optimism of 2020 release ‘Good Days’ and last year’s disillusioned ‘I Hate U’ continue to strike a delicate chord, though do feel somewhat reminiscent of a different era.
While early impressions find ‘SOS’ undeniably thrilling, it feels as though initial listening likely only brushes the surface of the deeper meaning and intricate details hidden within. Reflecting on the enduring lure of ‘Ctrl’, it’s possible ‘SOS’ will chart a similar trajectory – one that will see the album mature with age and only continue to resonate and devastate with every subsequent listen.
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