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On the dazzling ‘SOS,’ SZA spares no one, least of all herself

A woman in a pinstriped suit and no shirt
SZA’s range is astounding — the different ways she uses her voice, and the different ways she frames her stories of disappointment and dissatisfaction.
(Jacob Webster)
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SZA bookends her enthralling new album with a pair of boom-bappy hip-hop tracks in which the R&B singer — a onetime cult figure who’s transformed into a major pop presence in the half-decade since her 2017 major-label debut, “Ctrl” — raps as ferociously as anyone has this year.

On the LP’s opening title track, “SOS,” she announces her long-anticipated return by comparing herself to Tom Brady and Kevin Durant; in the closer, “Forgiveless” — which pairs an ethereal Björk sample with a loopy verse by the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard — she’s looking for competition but can’t find anyone equal to the task.

Both songs show off a rhythmic acuity and a nimbleness of flow that put the 33-year-old up there pretty close to Beyoncé and Lauryn Hill in the pantheon of female singers with the hardest of bars. (The album’s “general theme is: I’m pretty pissed,” SZA said this week in a radio interview with Hot 97.) Indeed, there’s actually a third rap cut on “SOS” at the midpoint of this 23-track set, and it might be the most stank-face-inducing of all: “Your favorite athlete screaming, ‘Text me back,’” she raps in “Smoking on My Ex Pack,” the words steaming like cooling lava, “I make no exception — the lesser part of me loves all the cap.”

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Part of what makes “Smoking on My Ex Pack” such a jolt is that it comes amid a series of delicate acoustic tunes in which SZA, who broke out with songs that seemed to channel the unease of a generation of young Black women, lays bare her most intimate anxieties. She describes her fear of giving away what makes her special; she admits that if she were her ex, she wouldn’t take herself back. Heard as SZA presents it, the range is astounding — the different ways she uses her voice, which can be serrated or chirpy or sultry or conspiratorial, and the different ways she frames her stories of disappointment and dissatisfaction.

In its emotional sprawl — not to mention its diverse assortment of styles, from dusty soul to throbbing trap to trippy psychedelic rock — “SOS” evokes natural memories of “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” and “Beyoncé.” (Throw in another precursor by another singer-slash-rapper: Rihanna’s proudly eclectic “Anti,” which featured an up-and-coming SZA in a guest appearance.) All those strummed guitars at the LP’s center, though, can also make you think about Taylor Swift’s “Red,” in which the country-turned-pop star achieved perhaps her most artful balance of resentment and vulnerability.

Like Swift, SZA writes with pinprick precision about the illusions that prop up ideas of romance and about the grim exhilaration to be found in crashing through them. “Damn, you was out of reach,” she sings over the head-nodding groove of “Kill Bill,” “You was at the farmers market with your perfect peach.” In the jazzy “Gone Girl,” she longs for the reliability of a committed relationship only to find the reality stifling: “I need your touch, not your scrutiny / Squeezing too tight, boy, you losing me.”

Unlike Swift, SZA seems not at all to enjoy the celebrity her insights have brought her. (Heed that rare usage of the word “scrutiny” in a pop lyric.) Though she’s engaged plenty with the star-making machine during the lengthy wait for “SOS” — this is a woman, let’s remember, who’s collaborated with both Justin Timberlake and Maroon 5 — SZA speaks often and openly about her distaste for being a commercial recording artist and her eagerness to leave the whole enterprise behind for something less encumbered by the expectations and the unearned familiarity of strangers.

That introspective bent is crucial, of course, to her songwriting; it creates the environment necessary to land on a confession as painful and true as “I hate me enough for the two of us,” as she sings in “F2F.” Yet SZA is so skillful — so adept in funneling the mess of her feelings into vivid bursts of hooks, beats and words — that your heart breaks at the prospect that she might give it up. (That sound you hear is hundreds of music critics cursing the fact that they published their best-of-2022 lists before SZA announced she was finally dropping “SOS.”)

Working with a varied cast of studio pros including DJ Dahi, Babyface, Benny Blanco, Shellback, Rodney Jerkins, Carter Lang and ThankGod4Cody, SZA paints a detailed portrait of millennial insecurity. Her thesis arrives in “Too Late,” which layers fluttering dream-pop riffs over bubbling drums like an indie Destiny’s Child: “Is it bad that I want more?” she asks — a question that gets more complicated as she keeps repeating it.

In the devastating “Special,” about a loser who made her feel like a loser too, she’s unsparing in her self-assessment: “I got pimples where my beauty marks should be / I got dry skin on my elbows and knees.” “Ghost in the Machine,” a haunting electro-folk song featuring Phoebe Bridgers, ponders sex as a distraction from the “disaster” that is modern life; “Nobody Gets Me” charts a toxic relationship from the good old days (“Had me butt naked at the MGM”) to a present both partners know they’ll regret (“Stick it in ’fore the memories get to kicking in”).

In “F2F,” an instant-classic bubble-grunge jam à la Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” or Liz Phair’s “Why Can’t I?,” SZA depicts a hook-up in its most elemental form: “I f— him ’cause I miss you.” And then there’s the gorgeous “Open Arms,” in which she’s in so deep with the wrong guy that she wonders, “Who needs self-esteem anyway?”

Do these lines (and the many more like them) make “SOS” sound like a slog? SZA’s real genius is that the album floats by thanks to her sense of humor — “In a drop-top ride with you I feel like ‘Scarface’ / Like the white bitch with the bob, I’ll be your main one,” she sings in the dreamy “Snooze” — and to her wonderfully asymmetric melodies, which hardly ever go where you expect them to.

Because her singing is so conversational, you always stick with her to find out; because she puts so much of herself into her songs, the answer makes sense every time.


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