Review: On SOS, SZA ditches her “sad girl” identity for being a 21st century rap rock star
A breakup is one of the most painful things you can experience without dying. No matter how many therapy sessions you attend, you can never be fully prepared to experience life without your person. There’s a secret language that exists when you’re in a relationship. Over time, you begin to adapt your person’s mannerisms and behaviors, until the person you were at the beginning of the relationship no longer exists.
As a part of the de facto agreement between you and your person, pieces of yourself start to dissipate into the ether. In the beginning, you were whole. In the end, you are just a minuscule particle. Now, charged with the task of calling every particle of yourself back into being. The responsibility is on you to make yourself whole again. But how does one make themselves whole if you do not know where to begin? What does the process look like of calling yourself back into existence?
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This intrapersonal journey is SZA’s cross to bear. In the five years since the release of CTRL, SZA, like much of the world, has experienced an array of heartbreaking experiences. We have mourned. We have grieved. We have lost so many people and places that can never be conjured back into being. The loss of something you love, the absence of it, can transform into a desire for anger.
And SZA is angry. The pop-punk sound of the early 2000s serves as an incubator for her anger. The influences of Avril Lavigne and Fefe Dobson are omnipresent, as the singer invokes their riot grrrl energy on SOS. One could imagine SZA in her early childhood home in New Jersey, admiring their piercing and thrashing personas, which she aimed to emulate on her sophomore album. Only SZA, a Black girl born in St. Louis and raised in Jersey, could intermix the eclectics of Björk and the reckless, gaudy aura of Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
On SOS, the album’s title and opening track, the singer explicitly states: “All that shit I gave for free/I want it back, want it back/This ain’t no warnin’ shot.” Her pungent words, elevated by the production of Jay Versace, are not only a warning shot to her ex, but to the music industry overall.
After five years of crying, mourning and grieving, SZA has birthed herself back into being and desires what she is owed. SOS is not SZA’s call for help. In fact, it should be ours.
On “Kill Bill,” SZA reunites with producer and songwriter Carter Lang to vocalize a desire for her ex-partner. The title, a reference to the 2003 Quentin Tarantino classic, is the first of many pop cultural figures who the singer uses to express emotions that she is unable to say through words. Elvira Hancock and Amy Dunne come into play on “Snooze” and “Gone Girl,” respectively, as vessels that channel her want to be seen, heard and touched by her ex-partner. Similar to how SZA deployed “Drew Barrymore” (co-produced by Lang) on CTRL to communicate her feelings of insecurity, Hancock and Dunne exist to display her willingness to make herself whole again through her ex.
SZA’s intrapersonal turmoil creates several points of contention throughout the album. The pairing of “Blind”/"Used” displays the conflict through contradictory lyrics. In the first song, she relishes in the joy of being validated by her ex-partner, the high that comes from the violence of their relationship, but understands how her bodily desires distract her from healing. On the following track, she comments about the difficulty to heal from him: “I thought it’d be easy to get myself on/I need it, but it takes time.”
Like us, SZA is guilty of reconnecting with her ex-partner, in search of comfort during a painful time. Describe to me a greater pain than waking up to see the imprint of another person in your bed when they have already gone. While clarity comes to SZA on “Smoking on my Ex Pack,” the revelation quickly falters on “Ghost in the Machine,” where she equates her desire toward her ex to humanity. The delicate voice of Phoebe Bridgers glides in on the third verse as the singer’s inner voice: “Waiting to feel clean/That’s so fucking boring.”
If one finds delight in toxicity, then the idea of a healthy relationship appears to fall flat. Thankfully, the voice of Sadhguru, an acclaimed yogi, picks up where Bridgers left off to educate SZA about the relationship between humanity and morality. He says: “Those who have forsaken their humanity/They like to patch their life with morality.” To which she replies: “I think I might be tryna patch my life with morality.”
This conversation sets the tone for the latter half of the album, where through numerous situationship experiences with others (“F2F”) and her ex-partner (“Nobody Gets Me,” “Too Late”), SZA finally comes into her own. The mystic voice of Sadhguru returns on the LosHendrix produced “Far” to remind SZA that “If nobody wants you/You are free.” The acknowledgment of his words is heard in “Forgiveless,” a Darkchild-produced track with a guest feature from Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
The track not only closes the album, but births a new SZA. A new iteration of herself, who after countless sessions with therapists and cultural healers, wants her lick back. In the spirit of coming back to herself, she finds comfort and solace in the feelings of anger and rage. In the legacy of Black singers who have been transformed by a partner’s betrayal and heartbreak, SZA has been reborn. She is not the same SZA from CTRL, and she does not have to be, because none of us are the same people we were five years ago.