PSA to SZA fans everywhere: you can stop listening to subtly dropped 30-second song snippets on a 10-hour loop and dive into the real thing. Happy SZA days, we rejoice. Her new album SOS has finally dropped and it is long, luxe, tender, and non-traditional, solidifying her spot as a poignant lyricist, otherworldly talent, and certified water sign. The 23-track album—the length and substance we deserve after desperately hanging onto every existing snippet and soundbite we could for years—follows her platinum CTRL album from 2017. The SOS artwork depicts SZA, a former marine biology major, sitting pretty on a diving board above a vast blue ocean, pensively gazing toward the sky. She’s probably conceptualizing songs that will ruin my boyfriend’s life once they hit my ears—sorry not sorry. The cover was allegedly inspired by a photograph of Princess Diana on Mohamed Al Fayed’s yacht in 1997, a week before her death, to which SZA said she wanted to pay homage to the “isolation” it conveyed, already pulling on our heartstrings and giving us something to relate to before we’ve even entered the project. The artwork is fitting for a water sign, SZA is a Scorpio with a Pisces moon, because there’s no better soul food than being immersed in reflective thoughts and feelings by a body of water. As a Pisces, I testify that water has always had a calming effect on me but is simultaneously capable of dredging up my deepest and darkest emotions with each passing wave. It’s also an experience I prefer to have alone because like track 14—nobody gets me.
Samples & Sentiments
SZA champions inner dialogue and eloquently translates personal reckonings into a project that doesn’t conform to genre constructs and feels like it was crafted for each of us individually. Blasé about genre limitations, throwing traditional structure out the window, her voice layered on and below beats and melodies that feel RnB, pop, jazzy, boom-bap, punk, and even, dare I say, country. The album opener is the title track “SOS” complete with the Morse code distress call and a sample of Gabriel Hardeman Delegation’s 1976 gospel exhortation “Until I Found The Lord (My Soul Couldn’t Rest)”. This sets the tone for the rest of the album, letting you know that she’s about to take you on a wild ride swinging the emotional pendulum from bad bitch to sad girl and reopening your old wounds so you can feel them all over again with her. If the production on “SOS” sounds familiar and you listen to Drake, it’s because Gabriel Hardeman’s sample was also used in “Champagne Poetry”. But as SZA’s longtime collaborator and “SOS” producer, Jay Versace, clarified on Twitter—he made the beat three years ago and samples are commonly used by multiple artists.
SZA also addresses rumors that she’s had plastic surgery done, namely a Brazilian butt lift (BBL) on “SOS” with the lyrics “So classic, that ass so fat, it look natural, it’s not” and later in the album on “Conceited” singing “I just got my body done, ain’t got no guilt about it / I just heard your opinion, could’ve did without it”. She poignantly addresses the subject while also communicating that the lyrics aren’t an invitation to weigh in on her body or decisions about plastic surgery, period.
“Love Language” is for the R&B stans everywhere, a sample of SZA’s 2020 song “Hit Different” with Ty Dolla $ign and Aaliyah’s 1999 single “I Don’t Wanna” on the same song? Nah, SZA’s just flexing with this one. Lyrically, the song is about asking a partner for more transparency and the title references the concept of love languages—the different ways people express and experience love. Maybe SZA has learned a thing or two in therapy? As “Love Language” beautifully illustrates though, your preferred love language may not be compatible with your partner and the mismatch can lead to conflict and confusion. Also, note how SZA’s honeyed voice switches melodies from tumbling through each word in the verses to slowly dragging out the melody and hitting different notes in the chorus. *chefs kiss*
Quite possibly my favorite reference on this album, as a self-proclaimed Kendrick Lamar stan, is “Smoking on my Ex Pack” and the interpolation of Baby Keem’s “Family Ties” featuring none other than Kendrick. My brain can’t help but hear “smoking on your top five tonight, tonight” when I read the title and you know SZA brought that audacious feel and hip-hop flow to this track. The bad bitch energy of these lyrics is unmatched: “I wipe my phone and gave some dome, I beat the case / Them ‘ho’ accusations weak / Them ‘bitch’ accusations true / You hatin’ from the nosebleeds, I wish you well”. Tell ‘em, SZA. Who said water signs are always emotional? Honorable mention goes to the lyrics “I got your favorite rapper blocked / I heard the dick was whack / Your favorite athlete screamin’, “Text me back / I make no exception” because the petty bitch in me loves to see it. Lil Durk and Future might be petty but SZA is petty too. The only thing that would make this track better is a Kendrick Lamar guest feature for the deluxe—I need more than just “All The Stars” from these two.
Films & Feelings
The cleverly titled “Kill Bill” captures the essence of the 2003 Quentin Tarantino film of the same name but with a soft lullaby sound in place of martial arts. In Kill Bill, Uma Thurman almost dies on her wedding day at the hand of a jealous lover and awakens from her four-year coma with an insatiable desire for revenge. SZA succinctly expresses the feelings of jealousy and anger that drove Thurman’s ex to try and murder her while also embodying the film’s sentiment of revenge. SZA grapples with the idea of letting her inner beast out—maybe she will kill her ex! But it’s probably not the best idea. We’ve all been there, no? It’s that peak of anger when someone has done you wrong that inevitably goes away as your feelings settle but until they do—you could be capable of murder. In the pre-chorus she sings, “I’m so mature, I got me a therapist to tell me there’s other men / I don’t want none, I just want you” dripping in sarcasm although the entire song makes a strong case for her continued involvement in therapy.
“Gone Girl” references the 2014 film of the same name starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, tying in the themes of abandonment and scrutiny in the lyrics. The chorus interpolates the melody of “She’s Gone” by Hall & Oates giving the female perspective of the original lyrics. The lyrics are drenched with the resentment and pain that was omnipresent in Gone Girl coupled with the theme of being absent which could mean physically leaving, like Pike did, or mentally checking out, a common survival tactic to endure damaging relationships.
The influence of film can be seen earlier on the album in “Snooze” when SZA mentions the Cadillac droptop from Scarface (1983) and Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, Elvira, as a metaphor for being a partner’s main girl. “Snooze” shows SZA grappling to be in the present with a partner and bask in the moments of happiness that underpin a tumultuous relationship.
Captions & Collaborations
“Blind” delivers “You still talking ’bout babies / I’m still takin’ a Plan B,” on a ballad, for all the girlies out there feeling berated by pregnancy announcements on social media—just kidding, we’re so happy for you and your growing family. It features the meme-able “I can’t see, I’m blind / Blind, Blind” that has gone viral on TikTok. The audio clip is fittingly used to describe red flags in dating, very much seen by the user, but they pretend to “ignore” in order to justify the continual engagement with their toxic target. Relatable! Healthy! We all need therapy, SOS.
The climax of toxicity comes on “F2F” which is fittingly backdropped by emo guitar strings turned pop-punk percussion for the chorus. It’s giving SZA meets Avril Lavigne except SZA’s lyrics are much more R rated than the aughts anthems like “Complicated”. The vengeful side of me lives for moments on this album like the song’s chorus where SZA starts off with “Get a rise out of watchin’ you fall / Get a kick out of missin’ your call” balanced by the toxic truthfulness of “I hate me enough for the two of us / Hate that I can’t let go of you enough, that’s why / I fuck him ‘cause I miss you”. Phew, a round of applause for SZA on this one. Sonically, she nailed the pop-punk feeling that female artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Paramore excel at delivering but lyrically she took it up a notch giving Brent Faiyaz levels of toxic transparency. So much opportunity for turning “Bars Into Captions” the way Migos and Drake fans do but SZA’s lyrics are arguably sharper.
Another loud in-message ballad, “Nobody Gets Me,” is an immediate hard hitter just from reading the name. She goes further than the song title expressing her raw, funny, and relatable feelings but gives us time to wipe our tears and take a breath, by spacing out her lyrics between the beautiful melody holding them. It’s a breakup anthem for the one that got away, and the depression stage of grieving a relationship where you can’t quite envision a future of happiness without the person you lost. If the song alone didn’t evoke guttural sounds then alas she also released a music video—happy crying! And if you really want to get into your feels and wallow, just give “Special” a listen. I know girls are banking “Took a long vacation / No make-up, just JAY-Z” as a caption for the quintessential “no make-up” makeup vacation pic. SZA is using JAY-Z’s preference for casual style rather than lavish rapper drip when he steps out to illustrate the female version of going au naturel.
SOS delivers highly anticipated collaborations, including “Ghost in the Machine” with Phoebe Bridgers and “Used” featuring Don Toliver. The album finishes with an Ol’ Dirty Bastard freestyle, which SZA extracted from old documentary footage, bookending her album with gritty boom-bap. It’s possible this isn’t the end-all and be-all for SOS, and could be a wellspring of SZA, the same as CTRL was—hopefully without the 5 year wait for a deluxe version. SZA has already alluded to SOS Deluxe, in an interview with Z100 NY, saying The Weeknd owes her a verse. She makes a ransom-esque negotiation offer to Abel: SOS verse for the re-remix of “Die For You”, another unreleased remix that got trapped in the archives.
All this to say, we’re living for the long-awaited full-length album and for SZA’s growth. Truly, nobody transverses genres and feelings quite like SZA. She proved her versatility on this album by tip-toeing in musical territories on her own terms, without sounding like a copycat of so and so, and creating a body of work that feels unique to her. It’s exemplary of the artistry that makes someone authentic during a time when imitation feels inevitable amongst the bloatedness of weekly releases. Many die-hard SZA fans will remember SZA teetering between confidence and insecurity on Twitter, fearing judgment and demands from fans and critics alike, despite our constant coos for new music. All very human and valid anxieties but in our eyes, she was already that girl. SOS’s lyricism, production, and wholeness feel mature and self-aware, oozing with her undeniable talent and propensity to be a voice for so many, just by speaking her truth.
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