Sometimes we get what we want, sometimes we get what we need. As the clock ticks down on 2022, the royal WE needed this new SZA ish—before Chanukah, for Christmas, beyond Kwanza, plus to ring in the new year. After five years, we needed to hear the follow-up album from this talented Jersey Girl turned superstar via Los Angeles. Solana Imani Rowe, better known by her Wu-Tang-inspired supreme-alphabetic stage name, got it in before the lock, blessing us with one of the first masterpieces of the kinda-sorta-post-COVID-but-also-Nah era.
SOS is an imposing 23 tracks long, but the songs are short and spiky. Its 68 minutes might not fly by, but there’s no lag time along the ride. At 33, this is only SZA’s second official album since signing to Top Dawg Entertainment ten years ago. But that doesn’t adequately tell the story. There were two strong EPs (S, Z, maybe an A someday?) released in 2013 and 2014. Her scene-stealing appearance on “Consideration” to set off Rihanna’s Anti began a star-making ascent that rolled into the 2017 classic CTRL, a spot on the theme for Black Panther, 2021’s Grammy-winning collab “Kiss Me More” with Doja Cat, as well as a few dynamite loosies dropped over the past few years.
SOS is her most ambitiously diverse project to date. There’s plenty to satisfy Day Ones, raised on cult favorites like 2014’s “Sobriety”, who fell in love with their protagonist “high and alone” because “love makes it hard to stay sober.” Is it progress to be off drugs if you’ve graduated to plotting an ex’s death? If that leads to new-millennium murder ballad “Kill Bill”, then sure. But this album isn’t just about satiating the diehards. The woman crooning “all the stars are closer” on the closing credits of one of the biggest movies of all time knows how close she is to a level of superstardom no Jersey Girl’s reached since ‘98 L-Boogie, maybe even ’86 Whitney.
There are concerted efforts to expand her base and musical palate. “FNF” is SZA showing she can play in P!nk’s playpen better than P!nk can. There’s overt bits of familiar music, lyrics, or melody cribbed from the ghosts of rock/pop chestnuts past: “Fade Into You” by Mazzy Star, Coldplay’s “The Scientist”, Hall & Oates “She’s Gone”, Radiohead’s “Creep” to name just a few, with more revealed inside the ear of the beholder.
In addition to the rock/pop forays, spending a decade on one of the preeminent rap labels in the business alongside Kendrick Lamar might have rubbed off a bit. She’s straight-up rapping on record for the first time on “Smoking On My Ex-Pack Tonight”, and, meanwhile, serving up heaping helpings of potable quotables throughout the album: “I need your touch, not your scrutiny, / don’t squeeze too hard, boy, you’re losing me,” “Handin’ out poinsettias / to my dead homie mothers, prayin’ they feel better,” “Cause my past can’t escape me, / My pussy precedes me, / My, my, how the times change, / You still talking ’bout babies.”
But self-deprecating gallows humor lyricism in the vein of Amy Winehouse and enterprising genre flipping still aren’t the main event under SOS’s big tent. That is, as always, SZA’s inimitable tone and vocal phrasing. No matter how treaded the sonic terrain, no one on Earth sounds like her. She can make four words feel like one (“do it to you”) being shot from a gun, turn a one-syllable word into eight (unspooling “love” like a bobbin rolling thread down a flight of stairs), mumbling her way into melodies in between, purposefully enunciating words incorrectly to suit her own devices (“can you dee-stract me from all thee dee-zaster?”). She also gives her male counterparts (Don Tolliver, Travis Scott) a chance to get their side out on relationship back-and-forth anthems with their voices modulated to the point of half-android while her retorts seem startlingly authentic by comparison.
Don’t “Snooze”. The “Ghost In The Machine” might have been keeping “Low” during COVID, but she’s back on a “Seek & Destroy” mission, airing out all grievances and flexing massively while fearlessly detailing her flaws and yours. The result is an album finished days before its 12/9 release date, adding a guest spot submitted by indie rock icon-in-the-making Phoebe Bridgers, stealing the 2022 album of the year trophy in the homestretch. SOS, along with its upcoming U.S. winter headliner arena tour, will be sending up smoke signals well into 2023.
SZA – SOS