Metro Weekly

SZA’s ‘SOS’ Review: Distress Call

SZA bares all sides of her soul on SOS, her expansive, long-awaited sophomore album.

SZA -- Photo: Jacob Webster
SZA — Photo: Jacob Webster

SZA has become so celebrated that it might be easy to forget that before this month, she had only released one studio album. Her genre-warping, triple platinum first album, CTRL, was a rightly-celebrated debut that firmed up her reputation as an incredible talent. At the time it was hard to imagine how she could have upped the ante, but the long-awaited SOS (★★★★★) is proof that SZA is not one to shrink from a challenge.

There’s no question SZA had already set a high bar for herself, but her sprawling, indulgent sophomore album easily blows it out of the water. Despite clocking in at almost 70 minutes, SOS is a captivating listen the whole way through. Her sound, still distinctly SZA, is far deeper and more expansive, drawing on the strengths of collaborators from Travis Scott to Don Toliver to Phoebe Bridgers and an even more eclectic roster of writers and producers.

SZA shifts smoothly back and forth between her characteristic R&B sound and her unexpected detours. She is clearly having a lot of fun with her approach, and the payoff is impressive. Her duet with Bridgers, “Ghost in the Machine,” is dreamy and captivating, their voices working magic together over hypnotic instrumentals.

“F2F,” her flirtation with country, is another moment that feels like it shouldn’t work on paper, but which she pulls off masterfully. SZA seems to effortlessly inhabit each new genre she hops into, and every move she makes feels deliberate and rewarding.

Sza -- Photo: Daniel Sannwald
Sza — Photo: Daniel Sannwald

As laid-back as the album is, a real sense of emotional distress is palpable from its opening moments. It’s quickly apparent that SZA has a lot of feelings to get out, whether she is rocking out as she castigates herself for her own loneliness on “F2F,” or getting starkly confessional on the dreamy breakup ballad “Nobody Gets Me.”

She can’t quite decide if she feels anger, love, or pure embarrassment for herself, and usually ends up in some kind of gray area. Even in her more nakedly vulnerable moments, SZA is clear-eyed and often even sardonic about her inner turmoil. Quite often, she is not so much wallowing in self-pity as waking up one morning, looking around at her life and thinking, “Oh no.”

Still, over an hour of desperation would probably have begun to sound boring after a while, even in SZA’s hands, but she keeps it interesting. She keeps us on our toes here too, taking us through one headspace after another as smoothly and abruptly as she shifts between sounds and genres.

Moments of vulnerability sit comfortably alongside self-assured moments, delivered with no apparent contradiction. “Them ‘ho accusations weak,” she raps dismissively on “Smoking on my Ex-pack,” before quickly adding, “them bitch accusations true.”

Her dark sense of humor is on full display as well, and her exes bear the brunt of it, particularly the one she single-mindedly fantasizes about murdering in an uncharacteristically bubbly tone on “Kill Bill.”

She takes her ire a step further on “Conceited,” wondering out loud what good it does her to make friends at all, a swaggering track that only loosely masks a deep mistrust that is vague, but which she seems to come by honestly. Ever a self-aware artist, SZA catches even herself off guard several times. On her self-effacing standout “Shirt,” she all but sums it up in the deadpan reflection, “Damn bitch, you so thirsty.”

To call SOS self-indulgent might not sound like a compliment, but SZA manages to come off as familiar and fascinating, like one of the most interesting people you know. Long anticipated and long teased, what she has delivered with SOS feels like more than worth the wait.

There is not a single track on here that doesn’t hold up in isolation, but taken together, it is an incredibly satisfying listen, not least because if you listen very closely, you can hear the sound of writers everywhere scrambling to redo their end-of-year top ten lists.

SOS is available to stream and download, with no physical release yet available. SZA will be touring the U.S.sza and Canada in 2023. Follow her on Twitter at @SZA.

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