SZA Album Review: SOS

Falcon Rating: 4/5

Farooz Khan-Trunnell, Contributing Writer

SZA, or Solana Imani Rowe, a quintessential woman of R&B, recently departed the supergroup of stars with extremely long-awaited albums (and even more desperate fans). In December, she reemerged after a five-year hiatus with her sophomore LP, SOS. Rowe had a die-hard fanbase waiting, after turning heads in 2017 with CTRL, a record that flaunted her one-of-a-kind vocal personality and intimate songwriting capabilities. Heralded widely as a modern classic, CTRL placed a lion’s share of pressure on the singer-songwriter as fans pleaded for a follow-up. But the pandemic plus mild career turmoil would delay the drop for an agonizing few years until it was finally announced last month. Unsurprisingly, pop culture was at the edge of its seat.

The 68 minutes of rejoice in SZA’s return is dotted with a few features.

SOS screams “making up for lost time” with 23 songs and an hour plus of runtime. The 68 minutes of rejoice in SZA’s return is dotted with a few features, each promising a more colorful combination: from past collaborator Travis Scott to indie darling Phoebe Bridgers finding common ground in their shared “sad girl” reputations, to a posthumous addition from legendary Wu-Tang member Ol’ Dirty Bastard on the final track. That being said, these cameos don’t take up much space within the fairly wide scope of SOS, which is primarily a one-on-one conversation with the listener. But even alone, SZA covers more bases than anyone could have predicted. 

First, apparent on the opening title track is a transition from R&B serenade to rap braggadocio, a surprisingly perfect fit for SZA’s charismatic delivery. Rowe continues to rap with swagger all the way to SOS’s closer, “Forgiveless,” sounding as natural and compelling as any career rapper. Along with the pop-punk inspired “F2F”—a novelty to be sure, but executed quite solidly—the record has several other moods, with wistful acoustic ballads sharing space with groovier, but equally angsty, R&B jams. 

The result is a diverse run of catchy and emotive bops, including “Kill Bill” and “Gone Girl” to name a few—at least in the LP’s first half. The torrent of tracks begins to drag farther into SOS, with songs like “Nobody Gets Me” and “Special” lacking the edge to keep the album quite as tight. SOS’s final leg does bounce back, luckily, holding its three singles, and with “Forgiveless” acting as a declaration that despite her troubles, SZA cannot lose.

Seen as a whole, SOS comes across as fragmented, relentless, and self-assured as its creator—a set of contradictions that find a strange harmony nevertheless. The lyricism tends to oscillate between in-your-face confidence and a stinging heartbreak, not universally resonating, perhaps, but the panache is undeniable. The record certainly isn’t devoid of criticism, though: the strategy of loading the highly-anticipated album with as much of the “SZA sound” as possible is justified, but sacrificing momentum and focus for quantity might’ve hurt in the long run. Either way, SOS’s strengths are still comfortable enough to leave listeners wanting even more, which unfortunately brings us to SZA’s recent announcement.

The singer has revealed that this new album will be her last. Obviously, nothing is set in stone (Rowe’s career is prone to fluctuation), but given how many possibilities she explored on SOS, following through would undoubtedly be a loss to listeners. However, the potential of more from the rap or pop-punk SZAs or any other SZA shouldn’t supersede Rowe’s own needs. Meanwhile, we can rest easy knowing that either way, the one-two punch of CTRL and SOS isn’t going anywhere.

This article also appears in our January 2023 print edition.