Emotional heft, piercingly astute lyrics and a versatile delivery mark a triumphant return that comes with lush production, some A-list guests and wild mood swings
One of the more notable musical collectives of the 2010s was TDE (Top Dawg Entertainment), which for a while felt like the future of urban music. Fast-forward to 2022 and all they have is a departing Kendrick Lamar and a frustrated SZA, but that’s showbusiness. The latter’s second album comes with several bells and whistles but is grounded by the reassuring presence of Ctrl’s creative team, while the subject matter centres around love and loss, particularly regarding her ex-fiancé.
Low is an early highlight, featuring banging trap beats and ice cold lyrics ably assisted by Travis Scott ad libs (“I’m fucking, I ain’t making love no more / you got a new bitch, what the fuck you crying for?”), a fine case study of R&B and rap music’s increasingly arbitrary borders. However the following track Love Language demonstrates the opposite sentiment, with clear vulnerability and infatuation for a significant other over silky smooth guitar chords.
As the album’s lyrics attempt to convey the mess of emotions that surround a tumultuous relationship, they’re understandably unpredictable track-to-track. Sometimes SZA knows she’s hot, sometimes she’s deeply jealous of some other woman, sometimes she appears effortlessly unfazed by life’s chaos and sometimes she’s always in her mind. Special delves into these more negative emotions with remarkable candour, reflecting on how this relationship has changed her for the worse (“I wish I was special, I gave all my special / away to a loser, now I’m just a loser”) over a lo-fi downtempo accompaniment, another stand-out song.
SOS is relatively long as albums go, though this length is justified by the enviable sonic variety across the tracklist. F2F enlists the help of Lizzo and ends up in pop-punk territory, an explosive hook about self-destruction and spite going over so well, while Shirt’s nocturnal pads and rhythmic bursts – courtesy of R&B royalty Darkchild – evoke welcome memories of One In A Million. Even the more conventional tracks have their own little tricks, such as Notice Me’s surreal synth chords or Forgiveless’ beguiling Björk sample.
If SZA needed to prove that she’s still at the top of R&B, she has succeeded with emotional heft, piercingly astute lyrics and a versatile delivery: with more than a few similarities to Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, SOS is perhaps the best break-up record since TDE’s last one.