SZA rescues listeners from five year hiatus


Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Solána Imani Rowe, known by the stage name SZA, sits precariously on the prow of a boat overlooking the ocean on the “SOS” album cover. The cover photo is somewhat of a recreation of the iconic paparazzi photos of Princess Diana Spencer in the same position, referencing the isolation conveyed in the original image.

In her five year hiatus between albums, SZA has become an icon of the R&B scene. Between the widespread acclaim of Ctrl (2017) as one of the best albums in the genre, which coincided with her features on high profile projects such as the Black Panther soundtrack and more recently pop hit “Kiss Me More” with Doja Cat, SZA has continued to receive admiration from the public even without a new project of her own. With the 23 track behemoth SOS released last month, SZA solidified her place at the top of not just the R&B world, but mainstream music in general, showcasing her wide range and vocal mastery.

SOS had a lengthy rollout, with the relaxing first single “Good Days” released in 2020, followed by the slow tempo “I Hate U” in 2021 and the TikTok sensation “Shirt” in 2022. All of these songs were well received by fans, displaying SZA’s ability to dip into different moods and genres while maintaining high-quality. While the release date for the album the singles were inevitably leading to was unclear until less than a week before Dec. 9th, it had her audience excited for what was to come.

SOS wastes no time getting listeners lost in SZA’s world, with the resounding title track filled with passionate vocals interspersed by rap flows, which was a style, for the most part, unexplored by the artist until now.

This is immediately succeeded by the most breakout hit from the album: “Kill Bill,” an ode to crossing out ex-lovers. The slightly eerie synthesizers carry SZA’s soothing performance, with the drums perfectly punctuating the artist’s emotionally tortured lyrics. Following a toned down repetition of the second verse accompanied by bass guitar, the chorus returns with reinvigorated force. This leads masterfully into the bridge, with SZA insisting her bloodlust is motivated purely by passion, paired to crooning ad libs mixed with satisfying guitar plucking. The ending verse wraps up the story of the song, with the slight changes to the lyrics of the chorus and repeated verses showing the descent into madness, culminating with SZA finally taking out her previous partner and his new girlfriend, resigned to her divine judgment as long as no one else can have her man. The song is a masterclass in concise storytelling alongside a beautiful soundscape and has earned its spot as the internet’s earworm for the next couple weeks.

Other notable standout songs include the third track, “Seek and Destroy,” a combative celebration of the freedom that comes with a breakup along with an infectious chorus, and the low key and introspective “Blind.” The consistency in quality throughout SOS is impressive, only slacking in the last leg before the singles bring back the energy to a satisfying and hard hitting outro in “Forgiveless,” featuring Wu-Tang Clan rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

Fans of Ctrl will appreciate SZA’s newest release, though there is a clear shift towards more pop-oriented subject matter and appeal. The clear growth SZA has undergone comes out more clearly in her diversity of sound, with songs like “F2F” and “Nobody Gets Me” showing how the traditionally R&B artist can craft rock and folk inspired hits while maintaining top-grade.

Though the features on SOS are few and far between, they are for the most part welcome additions. Don Toliver provides a charming chorus on the thumping DJ Dahi produced “Used,” Phoebe Bridgers gives a stellar performance bemoaning the often unfulfilling life of an artist on “Ghost in the Machine” and Travis Scott gives an underwhelming but serviceable contribution to “Open Arms.” Unfortunately, it seems we missed out on one high profile feature — at least for the time being. In an interview with Z100, SZA admitted there was discussion between her and The Weeknd about him being on SOS, but nothing came of it. She then mentioned the prospect of completing her unfinalized verse on The Weeknd’s “Die for You” in exchange for the fellow superstar to feature on the deluxe version of her newest album.

Despite the themes of loss, SOS has certainly found a home on the Billboard, holding the number one spot for four consecutive weeks without a clear contender in sight. The sophomore album has also been received well by fans and critics, receiving a 90 from Metacritic and an 8.7/10 from the sites’ users. SOS is much more than written in the sand; it is here to stay as a music industry staple.