SZA – ‘SOS’ review: a comeback album well worth the wait

The US star's first album in five years – and her last ever, she says – is sprawling, superb and rarely puts a foot wrong

It’s been five years since SZA released her debut album ‘CTRL’ and became, in what felt like a click of the fingers, an overnight sensation. That record ushered in a new era for R&B, one where the genre’s boundaries shifted, bringing new storeys of inventiveness into a classic sound and fusing it with indie, alternative, trap and more.

Ever since that 2017 release, fans and journalists alike have been clamouring for new music from the star but, a handful of collaborations and soundtrack contributions aside, fresh material has been few and far between. It’s understandable – SZA herself spent the aftermath of ‘CTRL’ trying to grapple with her new stardom and the big impact that had on her life. If that record set her up as the girl-next-door of R&B, how could she continue in that role with all the world’s focus on her and her private life?

‘SOS’, the star’s long-awaited second album, finds her picking up the baton from the hoodie-wearing, relaxed figure on the cover of her acclaimed debut and continuing on in her role as an artist who shares their thoughts, feelings and experiences with the candour of a friend. The subjects on the new record could easily tackle fame and the pressure of the spotlight, but SZA keeps matters relatable, dealing with everything from issues with partners, feeling enraged when you see an ex with someone new, and struggling with self-esteem issues.

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“It’s about heartbreak, it’s about being lost, it’s about being pissed,” the singer explains of the record in press material and the latter emotion makes itself incredibly clear on an early standout, ‘Kill Bill’. “I’m so mature, got me a therapist to tell me there’s other men,” she boasts over booming beats and a detuned music box melody. It only takes seconds for that brag to become unmasked, though: “I don’t want none, I just want you / If I can’t have you, no one should.” What follows is a fantasy of killing her ex (“not the best idea”) and his new girlfriend, sung so sweetly it feels like a surreal fever dream. By the end of the song, the crime has been committed, but no remorse can be detected. “I did it all for love,” SZA nonchalantly explains. “Rather be in hell than alone.”

‘F2F’ straddles the worlds of grunge and pop-punk as its creator lays down a no-filter account of using someone else’s body to fill the void of a former lover. “I fuck him cos I miss you,” she cries over a slamming, distorted riff. ‘Special’, meanwhile, marries rough acoustic guitar strums and chiming melodies as SZA’s lyrics create something that feels like a modern, more frustrated update of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’, if Thom Yorke had been made to feel bad by a poisonous relationship and social media’s cycle of comparison. “I wish I was special / I gave all my special away to a loser / Now I’m just a loser,” she laments. “I used to be special / But you made me hate me / Regret that I changed me.”

Five years ago, SZA was heralded for redefining R&B with her eclectic influences and ‘SOS’ takes that range even further. As well as grunge, pop-punk and acoustic guitars, it slinks through rumbling, dirty bass (‘Low’), soulful, classic ballads (‘Gone Girl’), chipmunk soul (‘Smoking On My Ex Pack’), and much more. In some other artists’ hands, that collage could feel unfocused, but under SZA’s command it feels cohesive, organic and like every skip into a new genre is completely absolved for each track.

The New Jersey-born star doesn’t do it all on her own, though. Although not everyone she invited to collaborate on this record came through, those who did show up create an impact. Travis Scott delivers an uncharacteristically – but good – gentle verse on the finger-picked ‘Open Arms’, promising to be “forever riding, forever guiding” to someone who is his “favourite colour”. Texas rapper Don Toliver joins the pity party on ‘Used’, bemoaning a relationship that “feel[s] like it’s over” through glassy autotune, while a raw, urgent pattern of Ol’ Dirty Bastard (taken from documentary footage) reinforces SZA’s majestic, powerful aura on the masterful album closer ‘Forgiveless’.

When the tracklist for ‘SOS’ was revealed earlier this week, the most surprising guest could have been Phoebe Bridgers, but the indie darling’s place on the record feels entirely natural given how much SZA has been inspired by the genre in the past. ‘Ghost In The Machine’ is one of the most unusual and experimental cuts on the album, but also one of its best moments, SZA first asking, “Can you create me happy? / Can you keep me happy?” over a woozy, dreamlike tapestry of clatters and ripples. Later, Bridgers lends her elegantly hushed vocals to tell the subject of the song: “You’re not wrong; you’re an asshole.

“I’m making the best album of my life for this next album,” SZA said Flaunt in 2020 and ‘SOS’ is just that – a phenomenal record that hardly puts a foot wrong and raises the bar even higher than she set it before. That quote, though, came with a caveat: “Because it’s going to be my last album.” Here’s hoping SZA reneges on that declaration but, if this is the last we hear from here, at least she’s going out on the highest of highs.

Details

SZA - SOS artwork

  • Release date: December 9
  • Record label: Top Dawg Entertainment
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