SZA saves souls on ‘SOS’

January 31, 2023 — by Jason Cheng and Hannah Lee
SZA performs on tour in 2017 following the release of “Ctrl.”
 Is it pop or flop for the returning R&B singer-songwriter? 

SZA is finally back. 

“SOS” is the R&B artist’s third album since her debut, a 23-track project that has soared to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart, surpassing well-known singers such as Drake and Taylor Swift. And to her credit, after this long-awaited performance, 33-year-old American singer-songwriter SZA can no longer be seen as “the girl who dropped ‘Ctrl.’”

‘Ctrl,” SZA’s breakout album from 2017, took the music industry by storm. Catchy hooks, immaculate runs, sharp production and perfect features all rallied to uncover SZA’s defining quality: her stellar voice. Hit singles like “Love Galore” and “The Weekend” have amassed hundreds of millions of streams on Spotify in the last five years — for a good reason. 

“SOS,” however, is on a slightly different wavelength. 23 tracks, as opposed to the near-perfect 14 tracks of “Ctrl,” is a daunting size at first glance with almost an hour of nonstop music. SZA begins with the title track “SOS,” epitomizing a toxic relationship in the modern day. It’s a relatively decent introduction, setting up the album with themes of vulnerability, jealousy and vengeance by mentioning that “I just want what’s mine.”

She definitely gets what she wants. 

“Kill Bill,” the most popular single from the tracklist, is a sadistic yet awesome piece of songwriting. The piece itself is a reference to the film “Kill Bill,” which was directed by Quentin Tarantino. “I might kill my ex,” SZA proclaims in an infamous chorus. “I still love him, though; rather be in jail than alone.”

The spine-tingling chills peak at the final chorus, where SZA actually pursues her intentions: “I just killed my ex; I still love him, though; rather be in hell than alone.” This is peak SZA, and we’re only two tracks in.

Unfortunately, the standout creativity of “Kill Bill” is partnered with “meh” tracks for her standards: “Seek and Destroy,” “Low,” “Love Language” and “Blind.” “Seek and Destroy” is especially repetitive, a three-and-a-half-minute track where the line “do it to you” is repeated almost 30 times. “Low” isn’t terrible, but SZA doesn’t hit it out of the park either — why do Travis Scott ad-libs randomly appear without a verse? Moreover, “Love Language” and “Blind” are frankly quite forgettable and average both instrumentally and lyrically, although the latter can almost be considered as an interlude — next. 

“Used” contains the first feature of the album: Don Toliver. The rapper produces a satisfactory hook melodically, but SZA truly shines on the verses in between. She even begins with “I’ve been used to being used like this,” a testament to the album’s overall theme of toxicity. Production-wise, the track still maintains the same bouncy drum patterns and elusive synths as before.

On the other hand, “Snooze” is a perfect blend of simplicity and catchiness. The hook itself is one of the most memorable moments on “SOS,” partnered with the suddenly endearing vibe of the song: “I can’t lose when I’m with you.” This stellar performance is followed by “Notice Me,” a classic SZA piece where she notes that “I don’t wanna be your girlfriend; I’m just tryna be your person.” 

Up until this point, the album as a whole is quite uniform, which could mean trouble for potentially drowsy listeners. There’s good news, though: “Gone Girl” is in the queue. This spectacle of music production continues to develop instrumentally throughout the track, concluding with a magnificent drum break and a shocking key change. Shortly afterward, “Ghost in the Machine” contains sentiments of feeling heartless in society nowadays, courtesy of a heavenly verse by indie singer Phoebe Bridgers and majestic harmonies between the unorthodox duo. 

Near the middle of the album, SZA experiments with different genres outside of her usual R&B lane. “F2F” is SZA’s attempt at pop punk, and sadly, it really doesn’t get more basic and bland than that. On the contrary, “Nobody Gets Me” and “Special” are stripped-back, heart-wrenching singles that encapsulate sadness and insecurity without a significant other: “Nobody gets me; you do” and “I wish I was special; I gave all my special away to a loser; now I’m just a loser.”

The end of “SOS” consists of previously released singles like “Shirt,” “I Hate U” and “Good Days,” as well as Travis Scott’s lackluster feature on an otherwise wonderful track in “Open Arms.” Features don’t always equate to success, and in Scott’s case, his monotone delivery and mediocre flow undermine the song’s musicality. 

As a whole, the initial fears come to fruition as the album drones on, but that doesn’t take away from SZA’s elite performances during specific parts. Several of the singles are playlist-worthy, while others might sink into the depths of SZA’s discography. Even though it doesn’t reflect the groundbreaking status of “Ctrl” after years of dormancy, “SOS” is a step in the right direction.

Tags: SZA
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