It has been illuminating watching SZA navigate interviews on the release of her long-awaited sophomore album, SOS. It’s as if she’s not quite sure what to make of the project beyond being happy to have expunged the emotions it documents. She seems more interested in expressing that it’s a truly daunting task to create on a professional level while being buffeted by tragedy than in dishing about the writing, which must’ve been hard-won. “I’ve buried so many people in my life, you would think that I would be used to it, or just have a threshold,” the artist born Solána Imani Rowe told Rolling Stone in 2020. In 2022, she’s rating her sanity at 6.7 on an album whose cover art mimics a paparazzi shot of Princess Diana perched on a diving board in the last week of her life, seeking serenity but always being watched and naggingly aware of it. SOS is processing loss and success and pain and desire from the middle of millions of ogling eyes. Five years after the slow-burn success of her breakthrough debut, Ctrl, the TDE superstar has turned in a follow-up that matches its predecessor’s rawness while speaking to multiplying difficulties in romance and in the public eye, where praise for her art meets gossip about her body — and body count.
SOS is a very public performance of trying to care less about what’s outside of one’s control, an airing of grievances about himbos and haters but also a naming and claiming of blessings that ought to occupy the artist’s mind instead. It’s a delightful paradox, a confidently executed exploration of what makes a person feel tired and weak. It is bustling with sad songs but saved from overwhelming moroseness by performances that bring serene beauty to these hardships. The first 30 seconds of “Used” — the one where the singer says her sanity’s suffering — progress from images of flowers at funerals to a sweet acknowledgment that the pain of losing a person is worth the joy of knowing them, while its vocal lines ascend to gorgeous heights like the view from an airplane that’s popping up above cloud cover: “All that’s for real is forever / Moments stolen taste bеtter.” “Ghost in the Machine” expresses detachment from the online drama in a short string of breathy, lilting lines that sound much more exciting than the experiences they’re detailing: “Everything disgusting / Conversation is so boring / ‘Heard about what?’ / ‘I hate her,’ ‘I don’t agree,’ ‘I did it first.’” Lackluster lovers get read for filth when they neglect to appreciate the simplicity of their romantic arrangements. “F2F” puts its lowered expectations on front street, flaunting a new beau to spite an ex while making sure the new suitor knows he’s only a temporary stand-in. (It is delicious that this song was called “Charlatan” in the lyric sheet shared by RCA Records.)
As unrelentingly harsh as SOS can be with its love interests, there is grace bleeding through a number of these stories of crumbling connections. SZA’s letting you have it because she did everything in her power to achieve a better outcome. “Patience ain’t no virtue with you,” the simmering “Love Language” begins before listing off reasons she should end things but then imploring the subject of the song to get good at sharing his feelings. Overriding her obvious reservations about a guy so he can provide comfort for the night is a theme that returns in “Notice Me” (“I can’t regret no time spent with you / And I still wonder if you notice me”) and “Gone Girl” (“Shift eyes, they tell me you lying / Don’t care, just lay here beside me”), songs about keeping someone less than perfect around just to have someone around. It’s never their story; the singer parades these characters in front of us as if to say, “Look what I have to put up with to find peace.” She talks shit because she feels people should get blowback for doing dirt: “I don’t care about consequences,” she sings in the album closer, “Forgiveless,” “I just want my lick back.” And there’s a lick in damn near every song. “Gone Girl” almost derails its somber mood in the first verse as SZA announces she’s “birthing bitches in my first trimester,” and “Notice Me” pops shit all across verse two: “You be jocking me for all my jewels / Damn, fan nigga / Hit it then lost your mind / Hm, I understand, man.”
Stepping into the versatility her blockbuster debut suggested, the singer stretches her art and instrument to their limits, sharing darker insights and brighter choruses and throwing you off her trail when you think you’ve figured her out. “Low” plays around in the deep end of SZA’s register while she applies herself to the same kind of brisk, moody trap tune Travis Scott prefers; the actual Travis spot on “Open Arms” plops the rager into the middle of a quiet acoustic jam. Genres melt and recombine in SZA’s charge, and her way with words evokes as many rappers and rock stars as peers in R&B. The bubbly “Conceited” and “Notice Me” dip into the reedy tones and loose enunciation of Young Thug hits, while “Far” deals darts in triplet flows and “Forgiveless” marries fluttering notes to lighting-fast insults, recalling the rap flows of “Consideration,” the trip-hop opener on Rihanna’s Anti, where SZA guested.
Anti and SOS are kindred spirits in their aim to let you know you’re dealing with a world-class talent by throwing disparate musical ideas their way and seeing how they thread everything together. Between the gospel-tinged breakup tune “Gone Girl” and the pop-punk, post-grunge concoction “F2F,” SOS touches on sample-based boom-bap in “Smoking on My Ex Pack” and soulful indie rock in the dejected “Ghost” with Phoebe Bridgers, rifling through four genres in as many songs. SOS is a maelstrom tamed by its singer’s steadiness, a series of death-defying maneuvers only she would try. (To be fair, the mix of cosmic folk, personal reflection, rap cadences, and vocal manipulation powering a song like “Blind” is a combo Frank Ocean showcased in Blonde highlights like “Solo,” though he would never touch alt-rock weepers like “Nobody Gets Me” and “F2F” or make a point to claim that stuff the way SZA does.)
Does it matter that it feels like there are a few too many songs here? Or is it silly to think that a 23-track album speaking honestly to the overbearing sloppiness of life right now wouldn’t wear you out a little? The glut of acoustic cuts peppered through the second half slows the pacing way down; some of SOS’s prettiest high notes are tucked away inside ballads like “Nobody Gets Me” and “Special.” Each song impresses in its own way, given the time. Maybe the length is a cynical concession to the era of the padded track list, and maybe it’s a dramatization of a year that felt like a horror movie, when a sense of security often felt fleeting or illusory and the fever dreams you dreaded the most often came true. “It’s all over the place,” SZA explained to Complex this fall. “It’s just where my heart is.”
Our feelings betray us every day as we pine for a lost innocence that can only be returned to through time travel. The distance between our current realities and our dreams engenders dissonance, and we were already overextended, navigating relationships our parents and grandparents never had to account for while balancing delicate, dense, digital bonds in addition to the old tribal, cultural, and familial connections. We’re spread thin, more connected, and therefore more in tune with more pain and subject to more judgment. This reality is how SZA can alternate between songs in which she flaunts her wealth and inaccessibility and songs that count the friends she has lost as she yearns for new and lasting bonds. There’s realism in the whiplash you feel as the album bounces from the me-first mentality of “Conceited” to the nagging solitude of “Ghost in the Machine,” in SZA wanting to drive around with a guy feeling like “that white bitch with the bob” from Scarface in “Snooze” and namechecking Ben Affleck’s Gone Girl just two songs later, after invoking the vengeful Bride of Kill Bill.
The jarring shifts in mood are true-blue maturing-millennial thoughts, a testament to a world where nobody gets a storybook ending. Stylistic twists are nothing new to fans who have followed SZA since early works like 2013’s S and 2014’s Z. SOS is the most confident rendering of ideas this artist has been working out all along about the limitlessness of Black art and the interconnectedness of rock, folk, soul, and rap. It’s an acknowledgment of the closeness of disparate sounds as much as it’s an attempt by our patron saint of situationships to domesticate emotionally distant men. SZA wants it all. She wants drama-free intimacy. She wants strategic distance. She wants revenge. She’s just like us.