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On SOS, SZA Once Again Blows Expectations Out of the Water

With features from Phoebe Bridgers, Travis Scott, Ol' Dirty Bastard and more

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SZA, photo by Jacob Webster

    SZA is back to save us all.

    Her debut album, Ctrl, remains an exquisite artifact of a snapshot into the ugliness of your 20s. SZA’s personal style of lyricism has always read like an endless diary entry, and the transcendent nature of her genre-shifting abilities helped revolutionize modern R&B and pop. On Ctrl closing track “20 Something,” the artist born Solana Rowe laments about not having a grip on her life and remaining alone. She worries about losing friends; she does not want to fall into an abyss.

    SOS arrives today (December 9th), five excruciating years after Ctrl, and — spoiler — SZA does not possess the answers to the new questions she poses for herself. It’s almost as if the five years caused her even more pain — but perhaps that is just life. In her lyrics, she pushes deeper into the full emotional spectrum, doubling down on her own insecurities and fears and her own existential dread (“Shirt”) — accompanied by the occasional middle finger.

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    SZA’s sophomore record is an assured, ambitious, expansive, and genre-defying journey into the very depths of heartbreak and the many shades it comes in — rage, fear, anguish, sorrow, bleakness, nihilism. She turns her own broken heart into its own liminal space through empathetic anxieties, feeling the push and pull of yearning for a lover while remaining wary of true intimacy. It is an absolute monster of a record that clocks in at just over 67 minutes with a staggering 23 tracks — and boy, was it worth the wait. If Ctrl was a near-perfect debut, SOS might be an inch closer to masterclass status.

    SZA is a master of carving out liminal spaces in emotions: of the insecurities that come with the torture of comparing yourself to someone else (“Special”); of seeking fulfillment from a person who may not exist (“Gone Girl”); of simply alienating yourself because you feel like you deserve to be alone (“Conceited”). Through a haze of tears and cigarette smoke, she mourns her own loneliness, wondering if the cure lies in having terrible sex with someone, anyone, or just pushing people away entirely.

    Like Ctrl, what’s incredible about SOS is the pure range of genre and musical palette. The tracks range from pure R&B and ’90s pop to pop-punk and soft rock. There is no obvious musical style that spans the record; the theme lies in her vocal prowess, the daringness of her vision, and her lyrical frankness in that she feels too much, all the time.

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    It was never going to be easy to write a follow-up for Ctrl, but with SOS, SZA has gone above and beyond. In the years between, SZA remained busy, collaborating with everyone from Doja Cat to Kali Uchis. But SOS finds SZA back in control on her own playground, and she pulls no punches with her all-star list of collaborators on SOS: There’s Travis Scott, Don Toliver, the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard and many others.

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