By Staff Writer Vidyuth Sridhar
Released on December 9, SOS by singer-songwriter Solána Imani Rowe, known publicly as SZA, tackles the multifaceted nature of love and embraces themes of self-empowerment.
Though she has been releasing music since 2012, the success of her previous album CTRL saw SZA rocket to stardom. The R&B and trap-influenced record was nominated for four Grammys and set the stage for following high-profile collaborations such as “All The Stars” with Kendrick Lamar. In addition, CTRL’s heartfelt message about the lingering impact of an ex-relationship particularly captivated fans — creating anticipation for what the new project would explore as SOS’s lead singles dropped.
Despite being released five years later, SOS does not stray far from the main tones and topics of CTRL, mainly centered around SZA trying to maintain her self-esteem after a messy breakup. This is immediately made clear on the first and title track, “SOS”. At first, she seems assertive, debasing her ex as needy and confidently stating, “Damn right, I’m the one.” Yet with a blaring Morse Code distress signal (S.O.S) at the start, a sample of The Gabriel Hardeman Delegation’s “Until I Found The Lord (My Soul Couldn’t Rest)” repeatedly proclaiming, “last night I cried,” in the background, and bars such as “And all the petty sh*t aside … / I just want what’s mine” — the track only highlights her true, heartbroken self. Even the album’s cover, resembling a 1997 photograph of Princess Diana alone on a yacht, also depicts her situation — a powerful icon isolated and yearning for true love.
However, the 23-track album delves into many other emotions besides longing for commitment. Hip-hop inspired flows on “Conceited” and “Low” are confident and unapologetic, reminiscent of Ocean’s 8 rather than Titanic (oh yeah, SOS is filled with movie references from Scarface to Despicable Me). Meanwhile, other memorable moments see SZA experimenting not just narratively, but musically. Earworm “F2F” brings pop-punk into’s SZA’s list of genre-defining moments, with its distorted vocals, booming drums and roaring guitars showcasing her vocal versatility. In addition, “Smoking on My Ex Pack” ventures into 2000s hip-hop and chipmunk-soul, with its sped-up sample of Webster Lewis’s “Open Up Your Eyes”, rap verses, and bass-heavy production harkening back to songs like Kanye West’s “Through The Wire”.
But for all its lyrical and sonic standouts, SOS has its share of issues. The first half of the album feels lyrically cohesive, with SZA showcasing songs such as “Ghost in the Machine” how a lack of self-love after a breakup can lead one to desire and even to seek out an unstable relationship just to gain fleeting validation, inevitably repeating this vicious cycle. However, the back half feels far more disjointed. On tracks “Far” and “Special”, SZA acknowledges and tries to remedy the impact this relationship-seeking mentality has had on her.. Yet on the ensuing cut “Shirt”, SZA falls back into a toxic relationship and effectively denounces her previous growth, stagnating rather than furthering the thematic development of the album. In addition, though the runtime only clocks in at a little over an hour, the sheer number of songs coupled with a lack of guests providing a different perspective grows tiring on the listener quite fast.
Despite the end of the record struggling to remain fresh and relevant to the wider story, SZA’s overall mix of genre-melding melodies, insightful lyricism, and hip-hop production on SOS proves to be a valuable addition. It’s not just due to her acclaimed discography, but the age-old discussion on what love means – for both yourself and someone else.