Album Review: SZA – SOS

[Top Dawg Entertainment; 2022]

A week before her untimely passing, Princess Diana was captured in a vulnerable moment, perched on the diving board of her boyfriend’s boat, an image that sums up the late-Princess’s life: isolated, out on a ledge, nothing to catch her. This confessional portrait inspired the cover of SZA’s return album SOS., where, identically perched on a diving board the singer born Solani Imani Rowe faces out into the vast sea. While Diana’s gaze focused back on the boat, SZA looks into the openness of the ocean, almost daring it to swallow her whole. 

SOS comes at the right time. Five years after we fell in love with SZA on her debut Ctrl, the long wait began for a follow-up. We waited, and waited… and then we waited some more. And then… we waited even more. Breadcrumbs were given – “All the Stars” with Kendrick Lamar from Black Panther: The Album was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award in 2019, and then there was the sizzling “Good Days” from 2020, and while her collaboration with Doja Cat last year wasn’t remarkable it did dominate the charts for a summer. SZA finally fired back with a song all of her own with the crushing “I Hate U” late last year, and followed it in October this year with “Shirt”. But still we waited for an album, until we finally got word just a couple of weeks ago that she’d be dropping at long last.

Much like Diana, the spectacle around the persona sometimes clouds the actual person. SZA’s grown in five years, not just as a human being, but her songwriting skills have bolstered significantly. While SOS may lack definitive “single” sounding cuts like “Love Galore”, its potency is double that of Ctrl. Here we have a woman divorcing herself from toxicity, and SOS comes across like a break-up letter, but not just from a significant other. No, SOS is more than that. It’s a statement towards her label – Top Dawg Entertainment – that she’s done with this bullshit. 

We’re already aware of contentious relationships within the TDE family – Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is apparently the last with his longtime label, and the media frenzy over the delayed SOS has cast storm clouds over the label’s prospects. Still, SZA released SOS finally, on TDE, its themes of deep struggle draw comparison to the lengthy process of releasing the album.

At 23 tracks, SOS may feel like a daunting task for anyone uninitiated to longer albums, but 2022 was no stranger to long-ass albums. Big Thief, Kendrick Lamar, Bad Bunny, Beach House, and Jack White all released (essentially) double albums this year, stretching over 80 minutes. 

What makes SOS more imposing – but ultimately, engrossing – is its nature; its ability to make you and me feel uncomfortable through its unbridled honesty. The first thing we hear from her is her admission that she cried last night on the title track opener, before she riddles us with a freestyle of bar after bar containing takedowns, aimed at herself and her peers, holding nothing back and repeating “I just want what’s mine.” Then she admits to crying again, a vulnerability that makes some people uncomfortable, but in the modern day makes more people gravitate towards her for its honesty and candidness. 

This isn’t emo or pop punk, even if SZA does try her arm at a more brash rock style with “F2F” and brings resident punk poet Phoebe Bridgers along for “Ghost in the Machine”. Her relentless exposure is inspiring to her fanbase because SZA’s a natural icon at this point, one who speaks the truth, even if the truth hurts. On the breathtakingly vulnerable “Blind” she submits to her own faults, “It’s so embarrassing / All the things I need living inside of me / I can’t see it.” What are the things that a superstar needs though? Well, a lot, in case you didn’t know. It’s a common theme presented to fans – loneliness at the top, trust issues, imposter syndrome, basically all of the same shit you and I face but on a grander scale. 

This is where the overarching divorce concept comes into play. Across its 67 minute runtime, SOS divides the multiple conflicts into microcosms. “Kill Bill” focuses on the nameless “ex” and how happy they might be with their new partner, “I’m so mature / I’m so mature / I got me a therapist to tell me there’s other men,” she crows, before going into a daydream about killing that ex. She starts “Seek & Destroy” with the line “You push me past my own capacity,” and later on during “Gone Girl” she protests “I need more space and security / I need less voices, just you and me / I need your touch, not your scrutiny.” 

The major points revolve around SZA’s separation from herself and those around her. “Nobody Gets Me” references a failed engagement while “Too Late” asks if a relationship is beyond repair. This is followed up by the dejected “Far”, a song about rejection where she lays all of her chess pieces out on the board – “Everything reminds me of us / I just want my sanity back / Better than being your enemy” – she’s burnt out, she’s fed up, she’s tired of the rejection; she’s stretched too far. All of these isolated worlds that SZA exists in to protect herself have now become restricting.

SOS gives a glimpse into SZA’s life for the last five years and it re-establishes her as the most natural voice of a generation desperately needing a spokesperson. She’s flawed, and she admits it; both in the way she lashes out at others and the way she aims her fire at herself. Flawed heroes are in, and SZA’s the perfect antithesis to larger-than-life megastars like Beyoncé and Cardi B: a powerfully-voiced black woman unashamed about being broken. 

It may take a few years for SOS to ascend to the heights, but if 808s & Heartbreak was the breakup record of the 2000s and Blonde was the 2010s examination of loss and trauma, then SZA might have produced that emotional breaking point for the 2020s. The next time we see SZA, she’ll probably still be on that diving board, but maybe she’ll finally be able to look back and smile knowing that she’s made a classic.