Why release a (non-Christmas) album in December? By December, end of year lists have already been compiled, festive schedule disruption has messed up normal music listening routines, and what’s it going to soundtrack, your stressful attempts to navigate packed shops in the freezing cold? After a 5-and-a-half year wait, SZA gave us a week’s notice ahead of SOS’ 9th December arrival. Such actions make its release almost feel like a contractual obligation, or a New Year’s resolution she was particularly intent on keeping. So, though I loved Ctrl, I went into SOS feeling slightly sceptical. We had a few artists returning in 2022 after extended periods away. Was this going to underwhelm, like labelmate Kendrick, or wow, like Beyoncé?

The first thing to say about SOS is that it is a long album. 67 minutes. Uh oh, alarm bells. Had she got to the year’s end and given us a Donda-esque song dump from the last 5 years, or organically finished an intentional double album? We needed a strong start to dispel fears of the former. Well, readers: we get one. Or two actually.

The title track’s headline is loud and clear: one of the skills SZA has been refining over those 5+ years is her rapping, which is now very, very good. And that’s not ‘decent bars for a singer’, this is decent rapping full stop. Over a gospel sample, she puffs her chest out (“this ain’t no warnin’ shot, case all you hoes forgot, know you been more than lost without me”) and gives us the current state of play in the land of SZA, while lightly mocking audience expectations of her (“coming back, she’s so candid”). It’s immediately followed by ‘Kill Bill’, which amusingly uses the themes of the titular film to describe how she is categorically not coping well with the dissolution of a relationship. The chorus’ quick cut from “I’m so mature” to “I might kill my ex” is superb comedic sequencing. These first two tracks are a one-two punch that announce excitingly: SZA is back.

The album is defined by short, snappy cuts. The mammoth 23-song length feels less daunting when you consider that only 3 songs breach 3 and a half minutes in length. And the early ones are consistently strong. ‘Seek & Destroy’ and ‘Low’ lean enjoyably into trappy hip-hop sonics while ‘Love Language’, with its mid tempo sway, is a compelling cut. And these all lead towards an early peak: the album’s true highlight, ‘Blind’. It’s right up there with her very best songs, displaying the same acoustic-backed vulnerability as ‘Supermodel’ or ‘20 Something’ on Ctrl. Confessing the feelings of humiliation she feels when succumbing to her needs, she’s devastating in this mode. If there’s a song to explain her appeal to the unconverted, it’s this.

The first 11 tracks are the strongest part of the record. ‘Used’ has SZA surfing the beat like a rapper with an accomplished feature from Don Toliver, while ‘Smoking On My Ex Pack’ is an interlude-type cut which again displays great bars (“I’m fuckin’ on heartthrobs / I got your favorite rapper blocked / I heard the dick was whack / Your favorite athlete screamin’, “Text me back””). ‘Gone Girl’ continues the good films = good songs rule – a soothing R&B number that admonishes an ex for not treating her properly.

The album finds it difficult to maintain this level of quality though. Phoebe Bridgers-featuring ‘Ghost In The Machine’ kicks off an underwhelming middle section. It’s a nice change of pace to include something which tonally could have fitted onto Bridgers’ own Punisher record, but unlike those songs it falls flat. ‘F2F’ has a fun ‘00s pop-punk crunch to it, but again, its novelty status doesn’t elevate it above average. And the more familiar sounding stuff in this bit is rather samey too. ‘Nobody Wants Me’, ‘Special’ and ‘Conceited’ retread previous subject matter and could have been left on the cutting room floor.

But it picks up again as we venture toward the closing section. ‘Far’ appropriately sounds like it’s set on a desert island, and even though the subject matter is downbeat, it sounds like a soothing moment of clarity among a sea of struggles. The aural equivalent of the SOS call beginning to be answered by herself. ‘Open Arms’ rekindles her fruitful partnership with Travis Scott on a sweet and soulful ode to love. And even though the dual cardinal sins of including really old singles (‘Good Days’ is fully 2 years old) and a posthumous ‘collaboration’ (with Ol’ Dirty Bastard on ‘Forgiveless’) are committed, it somehow works to end the album with a flourish.

So it’s a record that starts particularly strongly and ends well, with some bloat in the middle. Whatever the reasons for that December release, it worked out. Because ultimately, though SZA’s records can be inconsistent at times, the mastery of her vocals and the facade-splitting honesty of her songwriting means that when her songs hit the heights, they’re one of a kind. Seriously, the way she uses her vocal cadences to impart so much emotion by holding onto particular words, or how she delivers an honest or hilarious line – it’s hard to think of many others who do this so well.

Words by Tom Burrows

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