By Gus Nations IV, Staff Writer
Sometime between the announcement of SZA’s sophomore album SOS and its release, I was listening back through her debut, and I had the feeling that CTRL would be pretty difficult to top. Five years ago, CTRL seemed like a welcome bit of relatability in a year exploding with brilliant but admittedly challenging albums.
In 2017, Kendrick Lamar released DAMN, his visceral contemplation on race relationships that was literally meant to be played in reverse order; Tyler the Creator released Flower Boy, an album that simultaneously discussed gender expectations, loneliness and beauty and Lorde released Melodrama, which was literally called… melodrama. In the face of a collection of albums looking for answers, CTRL fit in as an understated, honest reflection of daily struggles and successes. Of failed loves. Of good and bad days.
But that was five years ago. Since then, we’ve lived through a pandemic, BLM protests, mass shootings and an insurrection. It feels almost as if the past half-decade has been the manifestation of 2017’s concerns. So, as I waited for SOS, my question became: How would SZA fit in a world that doesn’t seem to appreciate the value of “control” anymore?
Fortunately, SZA doesn’t seem to have been immune to any of the challenges the world has faced since she released CTRL. SOS takes what made her first album so special and heightens it to an even more introspective place. Feelings she didn’t have before — or maybe feelings she didn’t want to admit she had before — are given light and explored deeply. Throughout the record, it feels like the stakes are higher.
SZA’s feelings of confusion and jealousy are given life through her lush yet laid-back voice. On “Kill Bill,” she sings, “I might kill my ex / Not the best idea / His new girlfriend’s next / How’d I get here?” in an almost nursery-rhyme melody. Now, I can’t say I’ve ever actually wanted to kill an ex, but it’s lyrics like these that give voice to how frustrating relationships can be. Throughout SOS, SZA seems to know that we’ve all been there, and she wants us to know that she has, too. If we won’t say it, she’ll sing it for us, and she’ll sing it with passion.
Perhaps more so than CTRL, SOS combines SZA’s powerful voice with rich, bass-heavy beats. The combination of her hypnotic singing with expanding, mobile beats makes pretty much anything she sings very convincing. On “Seek & Destroy,” she sings, “Now that I’ve ruined everything, I cannot complain / Now that I’ve ruined everything I’m so f*ckin’ free / Now that I’ve ruined everything, keep it all for me.” Behind her, the beat thrums.If SOS has proven anything, it’s that SZA is uniquely gifted in transforming her own experiences into art that anyone can immerse themselves in. I hope and pray that the next five years aren’t nearly as challenging as the last, but if they are, and SZA decides to wait that long to release music again, I’d imagine that we’re in for another damn good album.