On SZA’s LP prior to SOS, titled Ctrl, Kendrick Lamar ends his verse on his feature with the line “Solana (SZA’s legal name) middle fingers up, speak your truth.” Clearly K.Dot’s advice was taken to heart as throughout her new album, SOS, Solana is as honest and proud as ever.
After having an album as culturally significant as Ctrl, there is undoubtedly an immense amount of pressure to create something that can reach the same height. In a five-minute-long documentary posted to her YouTube channel called “Where The Hell Have You Been,” we see SZA deal with the anxiety and difficulties in her lifestyle ahead of the release of SOS. Leading up to her Saturday Night Live performance, it is noted that she was operating on 36 hours without sleep. She was told that her album was going to be pushed back to the start of 2023, presumably to avoid being blocked on sales charts by the rise of Christmas music in December. In this short scene, we get a snapshot of how SZA’s life has been throughout the album process. She has even said that if the album was not well received, she had plans to leave this life behind and move to India. Hopefully she has not bought plane tickets yet, but even if she chooses to get far away from this lifestyle, we understand.
I was not the only one confused when SZA released the tracklist and back cover for SOS. It seemed to have a completely different tone than the peaceful front. For the days leading up to SOS, we were left wondering which path the album would follow, the graceful front or the chaotic back. While I would say the front is a more accurate representation of the album, the back still feels important. The writing of each track looks like it could be used on the poster of a horror movie, which was jarring at first. However, both are cohesive as SZA is alone in a natural environment, embracing what is around her, whether it is the wind by the ocean of the mud in her surroundings. The two convey different feelings but still share isolation as a place of common ground. This could mean that no matter where Solana Rowe is she feels isolated, which would make sense as a starting point for SOS.
On her sophomore album, SZA gives us a taste of what she can do in genres outside of her usual lo-fi R&B. On songs like “SOS,” “Low,” “Smoking on my Ex Pack,” and “Forgiveless,” she gives full rapping performances that scratch the brain itch of what SZA could do in hip-hop. We need to thank producer Jay Versace for creating the “Smoking on my Ex Pack” beat, as it was a perfect beat for Solana to spit over.
The track “F2F” is perhaps the most unexpected as it’s a full-on rock song that builds up to a Miley-Cyrus-esque chorus where she seems as empowered as ever. In recent interviews SZA has said that she has enough rock inspired songs to do an entire EP. The track following “F2F,” titled “Nobody Gets Me,” has the loud drums and guitar dialed back as SZA goes down a more country styled path. The latter feels like the penultimate song of the album. It captures your attention immediately because SZA with an acoustic guitar is an automatic success. However, the hook is what really sets this track apart. It feels like the emotional climax not only because of the lyrics, but because of the desperation it is sung with, feeling almost like a Hail Mary attempt at resuming a relationship. Still, SOS has songs such as “Seek & Destroy,” “Love Language,” “Snooze,” and many others that are true to the style that got SZA to the Grammy award winning stature she has reached. It is difficult to experiment with different genres while staying true to what core fans expect, but somehow on SOS, Solana found a way.
Throughout the 23 tracks on SOS, we see SZA being both extremely confident, even going as far to brag about getting work done on her body and then shifting into deep vulnerability. Neither feels anything but authentic which is ultimately what allows SOS to prosper. In the 5 years between Ctrl and SOS, it is clear that SZA has grown as an artist but is still the same girl posing in front of old televisions.