The Making of SZA’s Chart-Topping ‘SOS’
With SZA’s SOS spending its sixth week in a row at Number One, we talked with three of her key collaborators on the album for an in-depth look at its creation on the new episode of our Rolling Stone Music Now podcast. (Previously, SZA herself gave a revealing interview on the pod.)
Below are some key insights from legendary producer-songwriter Rodney Jerkins, producer-songwriter, and engineer Rob Bisel; and producer-songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Carter Lang. To hear the whole episode, listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify (or press play above.)
SZA was worried at first that the “I just killed my ex” chorus of “Kill Bill” might be “too crazy.”
“I’d made this little flute Mellotron kind of thing,” says Bisel. “And I sent it to Carter and he just did this like crazy boom-bap drum flip on top of it.” (As Lang recalls, the working title was “Igloo.”) “And then we just kind of fleshed it out from there. We played it for SZA and it kind of sat on the shelf for a couple weeks. But one night, it was just me and her at the studio and she asked me to pull that beat up. And she’s just kind of like quietly humming to herself. I wasn’t sure if she was, like, texting, but [it turned out] she was writing down lyrics. And it’s kind of silent for five to 10 minutes. And then she just says to me, ‘I have an idea. This might be a little too crazy, but let me know what you think.’ And was I just like, ‘You just did it again.’ It was instantly undeniable.”
There’s a wild story behind the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s guest appearance on “Forgiveless,” which Jerkins pulled from footage for a documentary about his own decades-spanning career.
“I was just actually just digitizing a bunch of my footage from my documentary that I’m working on, and I came across this VHS tape from 1998 that had ODB.,” says Jerkins. “He was in my studio and I didn’t have a session with him! He just was passing through and he just started rapping about a hundred bars. And as I was listening to it, I was like, ‘I wonder if I could take his vocal off of this VHS tape and put it on top of this idea for SZA?'” After he used the audio-separation software Audioshake to successfully pull ODB’s vocal from the original track, “I went back and played it for SZA and she was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. Where did you get this from?’ And the rest was history. It’s funny, ’cause after she finished it, she actually really stopped listening to it and didn’t want to play it for her label ’cause she didn’t think it was gonna get cleared. And I told her, ‘I promise you, we will be able to get this cleared.’ And she was just like, ‘Why are you so certain?’ I was like, ‘Because it was too incredible the way that it happened for it not to go to the end. There’s nothing like a good musical story.'”
Although SZA had been working on the album since at least 2019, 2022 was by far the most productive year.
“Obviously there was a lot of stuff made in 2021, but in 2022, that’s when you started feeling like, hey, ‘We gotta do this shit like, it’s been some years,'” says Lang. “We bottled up that energy and everything was just sort of a preparation for that moment.” “Kill Bill,” “Open Arms,” “Nobody Gets Me,” and “Special,” among other tracks, were all created in 2022. Bisel says SZA wrote and recorded her final track for the album, “Low,” around Thanksgiving, just a couple weeks before the album’s release.
Bisel, who engineered the whole album and also worked as a producer and songwriter on multiple tracks, had a specific goal for SOS, one SZA shared.
“I wanted to help her prove that she is a lot more than just an R&B artist. She’s everything. She’s a rock star. She can rap better than pretty much anyone. She can do it all. And she’s one of the best writers of all time. So that was my hidden agenda, just to help her showcase all these different sides. I think that was one of her goals too.”
Radiohead’s “Creep” was a “subconscious” influence on the ballad “Special.”
“I feel like that was sort of like a subconscious type of inspiration, almost,” says Bisel. “Radiohead was never referenced. The thought crossed my mind as we were recording it, but I didn’t want to necessarily create a creative speed bump or set a creative agenda by pointing that out and addressing it. We’ve [since] talked about it, and I think other people have pointed it out, too.”
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