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On ‘SOS,’ SZA is trying to sort it all out

The R&B star’s new album is as personal as it is intoxicating

SZA is many things: fearless, occasionally crippled by anxiety, self-deprecating, and longing for companionship while simultaneously needing to be left the hell alone. And on her new sprawling 23-track album, SOS, the 33-year-old cements herself as an unimpeachable voice of her generation by taking listeners on a journey through her messy self-examination process.

Like Ctrl, SZA’s 2017 Grammy-nominated debut album, the writing on SOS isn’t overly complicated. But the life SZA is attempting to corral is quite the opposite. “All the pain I know is used to fuel my soul,” she croons on “Seek & Destroy,” the album’s third track. It’s a jolting, relatable revelation that only takes a backseat to another admission on the same song. Now that I’ve ruined everything, I cannot complain/ Now that I’ve ruined everything, I’m so f—ing free.”

The album opens with the title track, “SOS,” which, at 1:57, ends way before you want it to. Though she’s singing over a Jay Versace-produced beat, SZA’s cadence feels more like rap, which is appropriate because she’s demanding her respect. “Give me a second, give me a minute/Nah, lil’ b—h, can’t let you finish/Yeah, that’s right, I need commissions on mine/All that sauce you got from me/All that s— I gave for free/I want it back, want it back/This ain’t no warnin’ shot,” she sings, riding the gospel-tinged beat like a seasoned emcee.

Known mostly for her introspective work, opening SOS with such a fiery song was a change for SZA, and we have Jay Versace to thank for it. “I really, literally, I’ve never wanted to rap or make anything aggressive before Jay came into my life,” she told Rolling Stone, adding, “Nobody has ever gassed me like they have.” 

This emotional tug of war between what’s good for her, who’s good for her, and just how good SZA is for SZA is the dominating theme of the album. “I need your touch not your scrutiny/Squeezin’ too tight, boy, you’re losing me,” she warns on “Gone Girl,” which comes near the midpoint of the album. “Who needs self-esteem anyway? I hate myself to make you stay,” she croons on the sterling Travis Scott collaboration “Open Arms.” The introspection on SOS ranges from beautiful to uncomfortable to, at times, cringeworthy. But throughout, the album is a captivating glimpse into the dismay of a star battling stardom.

I decide what demons I digest/ Almost tired of repeating, I digress,” she admits on “Gone Girl.” “Tryna find deeper meaning in nonsense/ Tryna grow without hatin’ the process.”

On SOS, SZA continues to figure out her end goal. Or, at least, the next destination. Her disdain for the music business isn’t exactly a secret and she’s talked about leaving it behind. Album delays have often been the source of her frustration, which led to a public back-and-forth with the head of her record label, Top Dawg Entertainment president Terrence “Punch” Henderson Jr., earlier this year. She even floated the idea of trading it all in to become a farmer, admitting “I’m definitely about to get up out of here.”

Either way, SZA’s still trying to sort it all out. And as frustrating as it may be, it’s also relatable. In our own individual ways, we’re all trying to find peace in chaos, whether it be through work, love, family, friendship or our self-worth. With SOS — much like Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales — SZA is yet another Black woman living in a society that often works against her while she battles internal and external hellions.

SZA poses on the cover of SOS.

Top Dawg Entertainment/RCA

SOS’ standout track is “Snooze,” which was co-produced by Babyface. Throughout the album, SZA is all over the place, threatening exes, begging exes, and chastising herself. But here, she attempts to live in the moment. “Snooze” is one of those songs that’ll live with you for years to come. It feels authentic, like the lyrics were born of SZA’s experience of pouring all of energy into a relationship — only to not have it reciprocated. It speaks to why trying to be present is a gift not everyone receives. Though she admits to being incomplete without her significant other’s presence, the song’s bridge is the real tearjerker. “How you frontin’ on me and I’m the main one tryin’?/How you blame it on me and you the main one lyin’?/How you threatenin’ to leave and I’m the main one cryin’?

In relationships, we can be our own worst enemies because we convince ourselves what another person puts us through is par for the course. As if companionship by fire is better than solitude. That string of rhetorical questions speaks to our insecurities and defense mechanisms, many of which only work in tandem with the pain. At some point, for many of us, we’ve been the one asking or the one answering — sometimes both.

SOS — much like Ctrl, which Refinery 29 called a “soundtrack for young Black womanhood” — will speak to many of those same fans searching for their peace and happiness. The album features a mix of styles and inspirations: hip-hop (“SOS,” “Smoking on my Ex Pack,” and “Forgiveless,” which features a Björk sample and a freestyle from Ol’ Dirty Bastard), a ballad (“Far”), pop (“F2F”), summertime bops (“Conceited” and “Too Late”), and even horror (“Kill Bill”). This is by design.

“I love making Black music, period,” SZA told journalist Jewel Wicker. “Something that is just full of energy. Black music doesn’t have to be just R&B. We started rock ‘n’ roll. Why can’t we just be expansive and not reductive?”

SZA’s no longer an on-the-cusp star, like when she was featured on the opening track of Rihanna’s 2016 magnum opus, Anti. SOS is a landmark album by a landmark artist. On it, SZA is in desperate search of tranquility, but she can’t escape the madness that surrounds her. The hard part is that, occasionally, it’s by her own doing. Yet, SZA remains committed to finding joy that she’s convinced exists — and she deserves. That all the drama, trauma and strife isn’t for naught. And that the person in the mirror can get out of their own way when necessary. 

So much has changed in SZA’s life since CTRL dropped during her late 20s. Her place in this generation’s musical canon is established (she’s expected to score her first No. 1 album with SOS). But then again, so much hasn’t changed as she inches closer to her mid-30s. It’s that constant search for what energy to allow in her life, and just how easy that practice is in theory. It’s a little bit harder in application.

SZA’s still trying to figure it out. Keeping it a buck, who among us can’t relate to that?

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.