Last week, SZA released the cover of her second album, SOS. A photo of her perched on a long diving board in the middle of the ocean, it turned into a global news story, reported everywhere from the website of the National Hockey League, which approved of the St Louis Blues jersey she was wearing, to the Daily Mail, which reacted very much as you might expect the Daily Mail to react when a Black artist appears in a photo apparently modelled on a paparazzo shot of Diana, Princess of Wales, taken days before her death.
If it all seemed a bit overheated, perhaps SZA’s second album was always bound to attract attention regardless of its sleeve, and not merely because it follows Ctrl, one of the most acclaimed debuts of the 2010s. That album announced the arrival of an artist willing to push at the boundaries of R&B: defiantly experimental, it sold 3m copies in the US alone. It’s that SOS has been a very long time coming. Its lead single, Good Days, was released two years ago. A second, I Hate U, appeared on SoundCloud in the summer of 2021, apparently on the say-so of SZA’s astrologer. Potential release dates came and went. In May, she announced the album was “ready to go”, promising “a SZA summer”. Two months later, she suggested her label was withholding the album against her wishes, but more recently claimed to be “stressed” about meeting even a December deadline. Moreover, she keeps hinting that the album will be her last. She is “emotionally, energetically unequipped” for fame: “I could burst into tears … I am effectively falling apart,” she told a journalist last month, which hardly bodes well for the rest of the promotional cycle.
Knowing all this, it’s tempting to say that you can hear, in the finished product, an artist considering retirement. SOS is very long – 23 tracks, well over an hour. It suggests someone continually adding to and augmenting a project, or perhaps throwing everything they’ve got at it, fuelled by the feeling that they might not do this again.
The results are hugely eclectic: I Hate U’s old-fashioned mid-80s slow jam alongside the pizzicato strings of the beatless Blind; the booming beats of Conceited next to F2F, which turns from country-infused pop into power-chord driven stadium rock. There are tracks that feel as if they were intended to come out in the summer – Too Late and Far have a gentle sunlight-dancing-on-the-water quality – and tracks that feel as if they are emerging from within a dense cloud of weed smoke during a long, dark night of the soul, such as the abstract Low, with its urgent request that you “get the fuck out of my space”. There are tracks that recall Ctrl’s lo-fi haze, but there is also Special, which appears to be wondering: “What if Radiohead were an R&B act?” It nods in the direction of Thom Yorke and co both in an intro of lazily strummed guitar and twinkling, celeste-like tones that evokes No Surprises, and its lyrics, or at least some of them. “I wish I was special … I’m just a loser,” seems very Creep-like; “I think about us fucking / Why did you have to fuck her?” a little less so.
It is simultaneously impressive and a little exhausting. Listening to the whole thing in one sitting is harder work than dipping in and out: the tracks shine harder individually than taken in toto, where the sheer profusion causes them to merge into one, blended by a mood of stoned melancholy. In fact, SOS presents the listener with a challenge: you can’t help but wish SZA had been more judicious in the editing, but that makes you wonder what you would lose – a tricky question given the unerringly high quality of what’s here.
It’s not the album’s only conundrum. Throughout, SZA sounds both commanding and conflicted. She is a fabulous vocalist, powerful but unshowy, capable of shifting seamlessly into what the Grammy awards call melodic rap: a mellifluous sprechgesang, its flow peppered with triplets that seem less inspired by Migos than Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.
But the words are largely downcast, even when they are not dealing with romantic woe, flitting between demands to be left alone – “I need more space and security,” she pleads on Gone Girl – and demands for validation: “How do I deal with rejection?” she ponders on Far. It’s a tension clearly compounded by fame and success, reiterated even by the album’s guests. “You tell me my friends are on my payroll,” sings Phoebe Bridgers, mournfully, during her feature on Ghost in the Machine, then goes on to concede: “You’re not wrong … You’re an asshole.”
Given the album’s emotional tenor, it would not be entirely surprising if its author slipped from public view. Unwieldy as it is, SOS makes you think it would be pop’s loss if she did. It’s too much of a good thing, but a good thing nonetheless.
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