SZA Is Untouchable on the Legacy-Defining 'SOS'

BY Wesley McLeanPublished Dec 13, 2022

After spending a half-decade bolstering her resumé with successful solo singles like "Good Days" and immensely popular collaborations with artists like Kendrick Lamar and Doja Cat, the first lady of Top Dawg Entertainment has become one of the biggest stars in popular music. In that time, she's simultaneously (and somewhat messily) built her sophomore album into one of the most highly-anticipated releases in recent memory. Every cryptic tweet, Instagram story snippet and TikTok-trending sound furthered her fans' growing hunger for another full-length LP, and raised the question — would SZA ever actually deliver?

On top of the extended hiatus and continually growing star status, SZA was faced with the daunting task of following up one of the most celebrated debuts of the 2010s — the odds felt insurmountable. And yet, with the opulent, ambitious and larger-than-life SOS, SZA manages to deliver, once again shattering expectations and further solidifying herself as one of the premier talents of her generation.

SOS is a near-perfect record and an excellent successor to Ctrl, proving to be worth every second of the five-year wait. It's a testament to SZA's incredible songwriting and chameleonic ability to dip and dabble in a multitude of genres and soundscapes, benefiting greatly from its immaculate production. Each track is delivered so dazzlingly that it's practically flawless. 

SZA's ability to communicate her deepest feelings and insecurities in such an intimate and personal manner remains her greatest strength. Whether softly crooning about her imperfections on "Special" or casually mentioning sleeping with her ex for validation on "Blind," her writing, even at its simplest, is effortlessly and immediately gripping. Regardless of whether or not you can relate directly to her stories of debauchery and heartache, the writing and delivery of each line make it impossible not to place yourself firmly in her shoes. It's a truly remarkable talent, and a testament to how impeccable her writing is and how emotive she is as a singer.

The aforementioned "Special" is the most potent example of SZA's writing and singing at their rawest and most vulnerable. The track is one of SOS's more stripped-back cuts and a highlight in the latter half of the tracklist, a heart-wrenching and self-deprecating reflection on a previous relationship and the lasting effects that her ex has had on her self-esteem. Complete with a gorgeously melancholy chorus that recalls Coldplay's "Yellow," this is not only one of the album's biggest highlights but one of SZA's shining moments as a songwriter.

"Gone Girl" is another standout moment that showcases SZA at the height of her powers. An incredibly smooth, catchy song that feels pre-destined to be a fan favourite deep cut, it'll be the album's next single if the TDE team know what's good for them. The lush instrumentation and beautifully layered vocal harmonies make for an incredible listen, but the bridge is what takes things to the next level; as the backing vocals swell to an ethereal crescendo before dropping completely into a phenomenal choir-led outro, it solidifies itself as a new high-water mark in SZA's catalogue.

The majority of the album is rife with incredible singing performances, but a welcome surprise on SOS is SZA flexing her rapping abilities. On the nostalgic, chipmunk soul-inspired beat of "Smoking on My Ex Pack," and the grimier, Ol' Dirty Bastard (and Björk!) sampling closer "Forgiveless," she finds interesting pockets and melodies and delivers impressive verses that help to vary the sounds and styles that keep SOS from floundering under its own weight.

The only time that SZA's foray into rapping falls completely flat is on the album's aptly-titled low point, "Low." It's a mind-boggling decision for SZA — who's now brought the best out of Travis Scott twice by bringing him out of his comfort zone — to venture into his sound so flagrantly. While it's not necessarily a bad song, it is the only moment on the album where SZA's contributions to a sound or style aren't felt, as it sounds more like a reference track for Scott's next album than anything.

It's SOS's only true misstep, which is a feat given the incredibly dense tracklist. The album verges on exhausting after a few front-to-back listens, but SZA manages to pull it from the fire each time it begins to sag. That the album is without any noticeable narrative or structure actually works in its favour, as it could be shuffled into a million different forms and still be just as effective. SOS isn't necessarily greater than the sum of its parts — its parts are just that damn good. 

Regardless of any minor hiccups, SOS is a spectacular sophomore effort from a star whose ceiling is high as can be. In an era where bloated albums built to inflate streams are increasingly frequent, SZA has delivered a 23-track masterwork on which nearly every song fits, each individual piece made with purpose and feeling. The strides that she's taken as a songwriter — and the variety of sounds explored here — have opened the door to infinite possibilities for whatever she has coming next (after her 2023 North American tour). While it likely won't come quickly, SZA has proven that it'll be well worth the wait.

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