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Album review: SOS by SZA

By Sheroog Kubur, January 19 2022

After the release of Ctrl in 2017, SZA cemented herself as an artist with a cultural impact. She brought an alternative flair to the pop landscape of the day, injecting her unique vocal techniques and delivery into a scene trying to find its next big thing. Her voice was iconic, her instrumentals were stripped back and comforting in an era of excessive production and most of all, her lyrics were jarringly honest. After five years of teasing a retirement from music and making periodic appearances as features on compilation albums and singles, SZA returned with her sophomore album, SOS

SOS keeps the foundation of Ctrl but carries a mature flair. The pre-chorus of the first single, “Kill Bill,” reminds us by singing “I’m so mature” over a silky smooth beat and distorted emergency signals. The single is an apt introduction to the album — it touches on themes of jealousy and growth, going through the emotions of someone trying to move on from an ex-partner. Each track is an SOS, going back and forth between blaming themselves for the failure of the relationship and assigning blame to everyone around them. It’s calling to the void asking if they were the problem in their relationship and musing on what could have been done differently.  

The record is aggressive and reflective despite SZA’s laid-back delivery. Each track is coated in a gentle melody and whispers of an oceanic scene, feeling like you’re floating on the water thinking about life. Hi-hats are peppered throughout the record, grounding the track in a more heavy melody against the mellow rippling of other tracks. “Seek & Destroy” is the first deceptively reflective track on the record, with SZA singing “Now that I’ve ruined everything, space is all I need” over an instrumental that carefully builds to reflect the deterioration of the lyrics. The distorted harmonies on “Low” bring an edge to the delivery, matching the IDGAF attitude of the lyrics. 

SOS feels like you’re reading SZA’s diary. Each song has lyrics that feel both like an overshare but also the things that you wouldn’t have admitted crossed your mind. “Notice Me” is the pinnacle of this, peering into the mind of someone desperately trying to get someone to notice them. It details mildly obsessive lyrics, contemplating whether or not it would be out of line to check your phone for calls or messages, compromising by saying that an official label isn’t necessary as long as they’re together and resorting to calling him a “hoe” when she doesn’t get what she wants. It’s the kind of song that sounds tame in isolation, but when it’s attached to the scribbled diary entries in the form of other songs, it gains some extremity. 

Despite the intense theme, the admissions never feel gratuitous. It sounds exactly like what it told you it would sound like — a young woman reflecting on her relationships, trying to rationalize her behaviours and wondering if it was all worth it in the end. SZA masterfully translates these insecurities into the album, creating resonant tracks for anyone to jump into. While detailing plans to kill an ex may seem extreme, SOS is more than those moments. It’s SZA being honest, something she’s been doing since day one.

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