If modern R&B were a Nineties teen melodrama, SZA would be the cool girl with a Trapper Keeper full of receipts on everyone. She’s the queen of revenge fantasy—exes get offed (before being told in no uncertain terms that their stroke is weak), and toxic rivals get dragged for fun in her songs, which come off like angsty if enchanting diary entries. In the video for “Shirt,” the third single off her stellar new album, SZA casually murders people at a diner while crooning, “Feel the taste of resentment/Simmer on my skin.” Remarkably, she makes pettiness and Carrie-level bloodlust sound damn near angelic.
The 33-year-old’s sharp register is stunning—a loopy lilt full of acrobatic twists and turns. She weaves in and out of pockets effortlessly, issuing barbs that land with tense, automatic-stop precision. There’s nothing scatterbrained about her music. But there’s always an oblique path to transcendence in a SZA song—meaningful digressions and spicy asides. Naturally, everything is punchy, straightforward, and precise. And the sacrifice (and labor) is evident from the jump; it’s there in the first few bars of each bop (as evidenced on “Prom,” which opens with lean vocals, whose controlled pathos is palpable). She starts where many pop stars of her ilk wind up, eventually, after, like, the eighth song on their fifth album. Without any big hooks, per se, she still gives you A1 melodies that are edgy, pristine, and instantly memorable.
S.O.S., SZA’s long-awaited sophomore album, is even more enjoyable than her 2017 debut, CTRL. The songs are looser and more confident. And the worthy themes—retribution, nostalgia, ego—amount to the most intimate and juicy self-revelations since the Real World confessional booth.
“That ass so fat, it look natural—it’s not!” sneers the artist born Solána Imani Rowe on the title track. Her outburst is, at heart, self-deprecating. But she makes it sound like a flex over humid gospel wails invoking a salon full of mirthful women fanning themselves (from the hair dryers or some scandalous anecdote). It’s the most assured SZA has ever sounded. And when she compares herself to Della Reese while solidifying her steeliness, it’s clear she’s cementing her status—“in case all you hoes forgot.”
Similarly, “Kill Bill” is all rigorous feminist intensity. Over eerie chords exuding modish late-Sixties cool, SZA annihilates her foes with a hook so spiteful she probably composed it in a yellow-and-black jumpsuit. “I just killed my ex, not the best idea/Killed his girlfriend next, how’d I get here?” she sings. And you get the sense she spent the long quarantine plotting while binging Tarantino flicks and rebounding from some doomed affair. “I did it all for love,” SZA insists as the track spirals into sweet chaos. If revenge is a dish best served cold, SZA’s cruel admissions loom like poison-spiked push-up pops.
On “Low,” she insists that “these bitches in my business got me out here choosing violence.” That said, the breezy cut is mainly about keeping things clandestine; its chorus (which wonders whether you can “keep it like nobody knows shit”) all but issues a Non-Disclosure Agreement. The call for silence seems apt: SZA’s boast that “that pussy is feeling like a great escape” sounds imminently worthy of some travel-oriented podcast. And the cockiness continues on “Conceited,” where she focuses on “me time” while brushing off her haters.
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But S.O.S.‘s most moving moments occur on reflective cuts. “Blind,” with its acoustic guitar and rich orchestration, finds her claiming that “my past can’t escape me.” And the mood feels both wondrous and enchanted—ripe for SZA’s wounded, if not ratchet, reminiscences. Also, “Gone Girl” teems with contemplative energy. Over plush chords, SZA confirms she’s had enough: “I need your touch and your scrutiny/Squeezing too tight, boy, you’re losing me.” But the lyrics are empowering, even as they criticize some loser who did her dirty.
The album contains no missteps, though “Ghost in the Machine,” with its references to robots, seems contrived, like a Black Mirror trope about the AI Art Generator. And “Smoking on My Ex Pack” sports competent bars by SZA, although its chorus is probably the best thing about it. Still, there’s nothing like the caustic animality of “Shirt,” whose hook sums up everything we love about SZA: sass, equivocations, and the unexplained bloodstain. S.O.S. stands for: Savor Our Sis.