Five years since the release of her triple-platinum debut record “Ctrl,” R&B superstar SZA triumphantly returns with her long-awaited new album “SOS.”
Released on Dec. 9 through her labels Top Dawg Entertainment and RCA Records, “SOS,” expands on SZA’s typical R&B soundscapes and branches into expert mixes of neo-soul, hip hop, alt-pop and rock. Throughout the album SZA displays herself as an evocative storyteller as she weaves internal vulnerabilities with bouts of self-assurance to construct a portrait of what it means to love in the modern age.
To say “SOS” has been long-awaited would be an understatement. Since the release of “Ctrl,” fans have fervently pleaded to hear new music from the singer-songwriter.
Despite releasing a handful of singles within these five years, including her Grammy-winning hit with Doja Cat, “Kiss Me More,” SZA continued to simply promise the release of her next album. After announcing a summer release for the album in post-Grammy interviews in 2022, SZA claimed in deleted tweets that TDE President Punch and RCA Records were behind the delay of her album. Regardless of disputes with her label, the sonic grandeur of “SOS” proves to be worth the wait.
Beginning with the title track, SZA kicks off her album with a hip hop infused song that openly describes the themes of the record that are yet to come, such as self-trust and relationship woes. Set to the gorgeous sample of a gospel track, sounds of blaring horns and the hymns of a church choir undercut the bravado of SZA’s verses and delivery and skillfully exhibits her vulnerabilities under the surface.
In her song “SOS,” SZA declares, “Punk ass tried to replace me, but the stakes is too high / They can’t survive off mini-me’s / I’m talkin’ pedigree,” and proclaims herself as irreplaceable. The choir chant in the background repeating “I cried” throughout the song paints the deeply layered state of SZA’s public persona and her human contradictions as she uses an outward confidence to mask the agony of her internal struggles.
The next track, “Kill Bill,” continues this idea of internalizing pain. Gaining its title from Quentin Tarantino’s assassin epic, SZA condones the thought of murdering her ex out of jealousy and the weight of her own pain despite professing in the song’s pre-chorus, “I’m so mature, I’m so mature / I’m so mature, I got me a therapist to tell me there’s other men.”
The song not only hyperbolizes the turmoil of heartbreak in a memorably infectious way but shows to be one of the record’s finest moments as SZA proves to be a vocal powerhouse. With vocals that flow smoothly and sound audibly pristine, SZA lingers on every note of the chorus of “Kill Bill” in a masterful style that the track cements her as one of modern R&B’s most noteworthy vocalists.
Across its 23-track run, SZA’s vocal talent remains a prominent force throughout. On “Low,” a track about wanting to keep her relationships private, SZA sings in a lower singing refrain under minimal instrumentation to match the starkness of the song’s theme and to allow her vocals to shine.
The acoustic guitar-laden “Blind” similarly succeeds at this, as SZA’s voice pairs alluringly with the track’s delicate strings and allows her to express her own frustrations with her self-doubts as she sings about not recognizing the love around her under a lush folk-pop tune.
The album showcases SZA’s ability to embody different music styles. On the raucous “F2F,” SZA embodies a grunge rock sound and screeches her vocals to match the piercing electric guitars of the track. Just like other R&B stars’ ventures into rock, such as Beyoncé’s “Don’t Hurt Yourself” or Doja Cat’s cover of “Celebrity Skin,” “F2F” is a risk that pays off as SZA feels natural within this rock sound confirming her sonic versatility.
The collaborations on “SOS” do this as well as SZA matches the styles of each featured artist. Whether its coordinating to Don Toliver’s icy vocals on “Used,” the rare, easygoing and sweeter side of Travis Scott on “Open Arms ” or unexpectedly with indie rock icon Phoebe Bridgers on “Ghost in the Machine,” SZA plays off each performer’s techniques and provides skilled performances out of each artist.
As multifaceted as it is multi-genre, “SOS” is a showstopper of a record that expertly illustrates not only the strength of SZA’s vocal ability but the power of her pen. Through her brilliant sincerity, SZA crafted an album that acknowledges one’s flaws to grow and presents her songwriting prowess. In my opinion, future fans must learn to be patient with artists for records of this sonic and lyrical magnitude.