The tortured singer explores the art of solitude in this sprawling epic…

The wait for SZA’s sophomore effort is over. The drawn-out build-up to the release of ‘SOS’ – which comes six years after the hazy masterpiece ‘CTRL’ – has been fraught with delays; label indignities over spilled into public domain, early iterations of tracks found their way online in acts of restless self-determination and fan service. SZA, real name Solána Rowe, has frequently tweeted her frustrations at having to meet deadlines, going as far to suggest this would be her last release. An ubiquitous online figure, SZA has leaned into her role as an unreliable narrator; her fanbase know to take her musings with a pinch of salt, and that errant, fly-by-night persona echoes across this gargantuan 23-track project.

On ‘SOS’, SZA has trust issues: the practice and pressure of being a public-facing figure wrangling with internal demons, forms the base notes of this labyrinthine set-up. The album sleeve’s picture of stark solitude – a contemplative SZA suspended atop a diving board backed by the encroaching sea – is evoked in songs exploring the quest for artistic perfection, the paradox (and parasocial nature) of fame; the self-loathing it breeds and the inverse journey to finding a measure of self-love.

‘SOS’ is a weighty, at times unwieldy experience, but it’s almost always a soulful rendering of an alternative fantasia – so enveloping in its heavy-hearted disposition you can’t help but be SZA’s confidante as she blurs the lines between realism and reverie. When SZA lights a candle in dusky, low-lit rooms, she’s a marvel. She funnels through unknowing despair on the flecked magic of ‘Blind’, singing “I need more space and security, I need less voices…” on the neo-psychedelia of ‘Gone Girl’; on ‘Low’, SZA’s version of trap is downcast and deceptive, a tenebrous affair played out in hushed voices, away from prying eyes.

Elsewhere, SZA’s command of romantic jeopardy and fixation bubbles to the surface on ‘Kill Bill’, a dose of Ronnie Spector-esque doo-wop belying a plot of blood-soaked revenge. The boom-bap thrill of ‘Forgiveless’ – which samples an Ol’ Dirty Bastard freestyle – is the coda of ‘SOS’, a lyrical masterstroke mirroring the industry apathy of Rihanna’s ‘Consideration’ – a track SZA wrote. Doused in rap lore, it’s a final communiqué of boldness, audacity and a revivified sense of purpose.

‘SOS’ could have been condensed into a tighter song cycle, yes, but it’s lengthy sonic sprawl has vibes and verve aplenty; SZA’s disordered musings are threaded into a cogent whole, the songs here are tempered exercises luxuriating in the breezy mid-tempo range. SZA is not the same person who made ‘CTRL’, and that past and future reckoning – which version goes and which prevails – remains a feature throughout.

‘SOS’ does mirror the deft anecdotal touch that made its predecessor such a compelling generational listen, but where it evolves, is in its omnivorous approach to genre tropes and more importantly, in SZA’s ability to convey the exactitude of her current condition through a subverting of the lyrical and narrative. This is an album about growth, however messy and non-linear it may be. Finally prized from the hands of a perfectionist, you’d hope going forward, ‘SOS’ vindicates and releases it’s creator from the burden of expectation.


Words: Shahzaib Hussain

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