SZA LIVES UP TO SKY HIGH EXPECTATIONS ON ‘SOS’

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SZA solidified herself as the Queen of R&B long before delivering her highly-anticipated sophomore studio album SOS – yet its release only further cemented her status. Released in December of last year, the lengthy and rewarding album experience tastefully showboats the New Jersey-based singer-songwriter’s generational talent.

Despite a rather unceremonious lead-up, SOS was immediately regarded as one of the best projects of 2022 upon arrival. And that’s saying something, when major artists were dropping left and right, including her own label mate Kendrick Lamar who released his final album for Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE).

Like K.Dot, she’s among a group of elites: Think artists like Frank Ocean and Adele, who all share the common ability to stop time and demand attention from the entire world. They create music that touches everybody; an instant soundtrack that is permanently embedded in its moment, comfortably defining its time.

SZA demanded the attention of Punch, TDE’s president, after initial hype upon See.SZA.RUN and S‘s releases, her first two self-released EP’s. She became the female artist signed to TDE shortly after and the stars were aligning for her to become R&B’s next biggest star, but her true ceiling was largely unknown. Her features on newly-discovered label mate Isaiah Rashad‘s Cilvia Demo are still talked about fondly to this day, and would lead nicely into her next EP and label debut, Z, home to early hits like ‘Childs Play’ with Chance The Rapper.

In the meantime, she received writing credits for artists like Beyonce and Rihanna, a telling testament to the quality of SZA’s penmanship – something that would be fully explored on her next project, originally an EP entitled A, later known as the critically acclaimed, full-length studio debut, Ctrl.

SZA redefined the landscape of R&B on the 2017-released project by melding sonics of indie, alternative, and trap with the genre’s classic sound. The original 14 song track-list showed no weakness from front to back, and this remains true on the overdue deluxe she dropped last June. Nominated for five Grammy Awards and recently certified triple platinum, Ctrl is not only the strongest release from anyone on the TDE label, it’s one of the best albums of the 2010s.

The anticipation couldn’t have been higher for new music from the St. Louis’ native. However, SZA was up against the global epidemic of second album syndrome – a common struggle for artists as they try to find their identity after struggling to meet the expectation of a great debut (see Roddy Ricch). After a couple of movie soundtracks, a few more hit singles, and five years later, SZA put any lingering doubt to bed and unveiled the perfect follow up.

The cover art shows her perched on a diving board and surrounded by the desolate ocean, inspired by a similar photograph of Princess Diana in 1997. Wanting to capture the isolation it conveyed, SOS finds SZA juggling between her confident sense of self who’s deserving of royalty, to the self-destructive and depressive counterpart.

Despite its heavier track-list of 23 songs, she holds it down and doesn’t over-extend her invitations to collaborators. Don Toliver and Travis Scott lend their dynamic trap vocals to ‘Used’ and ‘Open Arms’ respectively, with Scott additionally credited for the ad-libs on ‘Low’. There’s an unexpected but unsurprisingly welcome inclusion in the form of Phoebe Bridgers on the dreamy and stand-out moment, ‘Ghost In The Machine’. And finally, a sample of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard closes the album out on the excellent rap cut ‘Forgiveless’.

Songs like ‘Kill Bill’, ‘Blind’, and ‘Gone Girl’ were other fan favourites, emphasising SZA’s vocal range and candid approach to her songwriting. She’s more polished than ever and once again taps on the heartstrings of audiences worldwide. Whether it’s sexy R&B songs (‘Low’ and ‘Seek & Destroy’), short and sharp rap entries (‘SOS’ and ‘Smoking On My Ex Pack’), a country/pop-punk anthem (‘F2F’) or an acoustic ballad (‘Notice Me’) that you’re after, SZA simply cannot miss.

It’s rare for albums with a runtime of over an hour to continually build such excitement, yet SOS is one of a kind. While a shorter duration could’ve meant for a more precise initial listening experience, it’s hard to imagine what would be sacrificed.

Even more so of an emotional journey than its predecessor, SOS lands with more aggression, honesty and stylistic versatility than we’ve heard from SZA. Through her clever and humouring songwriting, and the convincing sonic steps she’s taken beyond R&B, SZA sounds as radical and empowered as ever. 

SOS was record breaking. Not only did it debut atop the US Billboard 200, it became the most streamed R&B album ever with 404.58 million in its first week, and the second highest streaming week for a female artist ever. It moved 318k units in the first week, and was certified gold within days. SOS has stayed atop the Billboard 200 for over 5 weeks, marking SZA as the first solo female RnB artist this century to achieve such a feat. It was the third biggest debut of 2022, behind Drake and 21 Savage‘s Her Loss and Taylor Swift‘s Midnights.

She’s set the tone for herself and matched it, with her attitude on SOS only putting the industry on further red alert. It wasn’t only a reflection of SZA’s maturity as an artist, but it was her shattered backboard moment. She’s here, and her impact is undeniable. It doesn’t matter if this is truly her last record or not, regardless, most artists will never reach her height of pure quality and effortless brilliance.

Article by Frank Tremain and Matt Slocum.

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