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SZA is Back: First-listen Impressions of New Album ‘SOS’

After a five-year absence, SZA returns with her sophomore album, SOS. Boardroom breaks down the project and what it could mean for her career.

For the past five years, SZA was a ghost. After the release of her critically acclaimed debut album CTRL, the New Jersey native has lived a reclusive life. SZA was not as secluded as her formal labelmate Kendrick Lamar, but both still had a five-year span with little music being released.

For some artists, the lack of releasing music can result in the overall interest of fans dying down. But because CTRL has become a certified classic among fans and artists alike, the five-year drought only made SZA’s fans more rabid for her music.

She did offer glimpses of her existence on solo tracks like “Hit Different,” “Good Days” and “I Hate U” as well as contributing to features with Doja Cat, Cardi B, Maroon 5, Justin Timberlake, and DJ Khaled. But SZA hasn’t blessed us with a full-length album since 2017, that is until Friday.

If CTRL solidified SZA’s star status, SOS — the artist’s newest album — has the potential to catapult her into being a superstar.

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In some ways, it is already happening. SZA has a deal with Crocs that has seen her release four different products with the footwear company. And so if brands are willing to work with an artist who has not released much music over a five-year span, imagine what they will do when that artist does post new tunes. I suspect SZA will have a long list of companies that want to work with her for some time.

On the music side of things. SZA is without what many consider to be the highest award in music — a Grammy. Admittedly, she told GQ her walking away with zero awards after being nominated for five made her “mad as hell.” And it enraged fans, too, as many thought the Recording Academy snubbed her. Since then, SZA has won a Grammy for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance with Doja Cat for their song “Kiss Me More.”

(Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

SOS could potentially give SZA opportunities that she has not yet seen in her career. Whether that be with a brand she has wanted to work with or through award recognition, all eyes and ears are on her.

Make the strongest statement about SOS you can make.

SOS is the beginning of SZA’s antihero era. The spirit of SZA’s sophomore effort is full of passion, fury, revenge, love, and lust. Upon my first listen, there were so many lines that I could not believe what she said. The second record, “Kill Bill,” is easily one of the most deranged records of the year.

I might kill my ex / Not the best idea / His new girlfriend’s next / How’d I get here? / I might kill my ex / I still love him though / Rather be in jail than alone

If a woman in my life professed this, I would admit them to the psych ward. But because this is SZA, I’m going to ignore the madness in favor of the beauty within the album.

I loved the overall balance of SOS. Encompassing 23 songs within a single project is a daunting job, but I think SZA and her TDE team successfully completed the task. The album never feels too fast or too slow; it is perfectly paced. The words within each record are an emotional rollercoaster that touches the heights of Mount Everest and the depths of the Mariana Trench.

On SOS, SZA never ever gets close to convincing me she will find love. For every romantic bar, there are a dozen lethal confessions. There is also immense vulnerability where we see her confide in her audience about her own relationship trauma and the yearning for a healthy love life.

I was shocked to see that there was not a single TDE feature and the SZA/Isaiah Rashad feature run on each other’s albums tragically came to a close. The four guest verses from Travis Scott, Don Toliver, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Phoebe Bridgers were very well placed. I enjoyed Travis Scott’s the most; I don’t think we have ever heard him that gentle and soothing.

I say all of this to say, of the 23 tracks, there was only one that I struggled with (we’ll get to that later). Each record on SOS flows effortlessly from one to the next, and throughout all of SZA’s delirious, funny, charming, and poetic lyrics, SOS is an incredible album.

How does SOS square with expectations?

As it stands today, SZA’s CTRL has spent 286 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart. Naturally, whatever SZA decided to release would be measured up against her classic 2017 debut.

With that said, SOS is more than a worthy successor. The album does not stand in the shadow of CTRL; it stands next to it. I think the two will eventually come to be a dynamic duo.

SOS has something for everyone. If you enjoy SZA’s slower ballads, there are songs like “Love Language,” “Snooze,” “Open Arms,” “Nobody Gets Me,” and many more. Want head-bopping records? Press play on “Low,” “Used,” or “Conceited.” If emotional pandemonium is your thing, you can’t go wrong with “SOS.”

SZA told Hot 97, “I just want what’s good,” in reference to choosing the 23 songs for SOS. “I want what tells a new side of me and isn’t redundant.”

I don’t think anyone can listen to SOS and say it sounds like anything SZA has ever released before. From the production to the lyrics, everything about her latest effort is a stark contrast to her previous releases.

And along those lines, I have absolutely no idea which track will emerge from SOS as the hit. This is in large part due to SZA’s latest highest charting solo records (“I Hate U,” “Good Days,” “Shirt,” and “Hit Different”) sounding very different from one another. It is a good situation to be in when your fan base can elevate unlikely songs onto the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

All in all, SOS is to CTRL what Alien is to Aliens.

What’s the first track you just had to listen to again?

And this is easily the toughest question. Deciding on one is like walking into the candy store and being told you can only leave with a single sweet treat. The treat that I choose is “Smoking on my Ex Pack.” The record saw SZA venture into new territory as she rapped over an incredible Jay Versace-produced beat.

SZA’s pen has always been sharp enough to cut diamonds so I wasn’t surprised she decided to spit. What did catch me off guard were all the proclamations throughout the 84-second track.

Your favorite athlete screaming text me back / I make no exception the lesser part of me loves all the cap / he screaming get back together / I’m screaming back of the bus trick.

As you can see, there is no love lost on this record. SZA spares no one; she is as ruthless as Cersei Lannister and as manic as Harley Quinn. And yet, the combination of these words, her flow, and the production make this song one that fans will surely rap along to when SZA goes on tour. Cheers to chaos.

What’s a track you’re still wrestling with?

A not-so-hard question. My selection is “F2F.” SZA taps into a true punk rock bag that has not been seen since her EP “Z,” released back in 2014. Hearing “F2F” in the midst of SOS was like ordering a tomahawk steak and getting a filet mignon. Still tasty, just not what you expected. The record is as tumultuous as the couples on Netflix’s Love is Blind.

Get a rise out of watching you fall / Get a kick out of missing your call / I hate me enough for the two of us / Hate that I can’t let go of you enough this why / I f*** him ’cause I miss you / I f*** him cause I really miss you.

The amount of toxicity laced in these words is enough to make a man sick upon hearing them. Yes, I was sick.

Regardless of the emotions within the record, it is dope to see SZA try new things. Sometimes we as listeners try to box artists in to create something within our imagination instead of letting artists take us down a path of their choice. Because this song sounds different than everything else on SOS, it will take time to revisit. And that’s okay because for others it may be on repeat.

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About The Author
Randall Williams
Randall Williams
Randall Williams is a Staff Writer covering sports business and music for Boardroom. Before joining the team, he previously worked for Sportico, Andscape and Bloomberg. His byline has also been syndicated in the Boston Globe and Time Magazine. Williams' notable profile features he has written include NFL Executive VP Troy Vincent, Dreamville co-founder Ibrahim Hamad, BMX biker Nigel Sylvester and both Shedeur and Shilo Sanders. Randall, a graduate of "The Real HU" - Hampton University - is most proud of scooping Howard University joining Jordan Brand nearly three months before the official announcement.