SZA’s 'SOS' is the Biggest R&B Album of 2023; ThankGod4Cody is a Big Reason Why
SZA is breaking records with her latest album, SOS. One of the architect behind the modern day R&B masterpiece is ThankGod4Cody, who produced a number of tracks.
ThankGod4Cody meeting SZA was happenstance — what he calls "just a right place, right time thing." Around 2015, in a studio in Los Angeles, Cody was making a beat. This was years before SZA would even think about SOS, the album that would take her to another stratosphere. SZA was in her post-Z era, not yet a household name, though she had already been signed to TDE two years prior. "I saw her and saw how cold she was," Cody told Okayplayer via Zoom. He was talking from his Los Angeles home. "But she wasn't getting treated like a major artist; it wasn't that time yet. She was grinding hard to get her shit to the next level."
In that L.A. studio, she overheard Cody's beat from the next room and immediately knew she wanted it for herself. That song would become "Sobriety" and marked the beginning of their fruitful artist-producer relationship.
The pair’s relationship would blossom even more, when the two reconnected for SZA’s breakout, CTRL. ThankGod4Cody's production credits include three of the biggest singles from the project: "Love Galore," "Broken Clocks," and "The Weekend." When looking at all three tracks collectively, the sound is saintly and ethereal. The production gleans on gospel-like melodies — “Broken Clocks” utilizes a sample of River Tiber’s airy 2016 single “West.”The original song and the sample share a similar floaty melody, however, SZA intimately harmonizes about the struggle of making ends meet. “The Weeked,” utilized an interpolation from Justin Timberlake’s “Summer Love/Set The Mood Interlude,” with which he added glittery chords to match. With just the instrumental, one could assume it might’ve been a praise and worship song, not SZA’s complicated love quadrangle. Sonically, “Love Galore” follows a similar pattern, dreamy and relaxed melodies paired with lyrics of a shameful relationship.
The success of CTRL — three Grammy nominations and a seven-time platinum distinction — only meant that SZA and Cody's return to the studio would have to be even better than the last. However, Cody's creative process for SOS began with releasing the idea of having to eclipse his past work. Five years sat between SZA's two studio albums, so the pressures and expectations of creating hits eventually tapered off. "I went into making SOS just accepting being a part of something great and helping piece together a great project," Cody said. "I had to really check my ego and my intentions. Chasing that feeling of making hits will make me not love making music anymore; it becomes a game of numbers and hits."
Cody holds seven credits on the 23-track album, including songs "I Hate U," "Notice Me," "Seek & Destroy," and "Conceited." Most of Cody's songs on the album are collaborative efforts that, as opposed to his past work, don't lean on samples. "Seek & Destroy" was created with Rob Bisel, Carter Lang, and Scum. "We were all trying to make some up-tempo tracks for SOS, and that was the Hail Mary beat before we left," Cody said. "It was shocking that this was the one SZA chose out of the bunch we made that day."
SZA and Cody are perhaps the most experimental on SOS. “I Hate U,” arguably one of the most popular songs on the album thanks to TikTok, opens with SZA singing, “I be so sick of you niggas, y’all contradicting.” The electro-R&B song feels light with sublime progressions that sway with SZA’s mood, as she vents about her disdain for another failed relationship. On “Notice Me,” Cody’s sound is more lighthearted and solar, even when SZA feels a handful of contradictory emotions.
All the songs share a common theme, a takeaway Cody carries from his religious upbringing: to evoke emotion. "When you would hear the music in church, it's something that moves you, and as a kid, [praise and worship] was the part I looked forward to the most," Cody said. "How it translates now is judging off what I think is good, as well as the feeling it supplies me at the time."
The 30-year-old artist and producer, born Cody Fayne, is no stranger to music. He grew up in the thick of the Bible Belt in Memphis, Tennessee, and was raised by devout Christian parents. His upbringing didn't leave much room for secular music or activities — playing Pokémon and celebrating Halloween were out of the question. "I grew up listening to mostly gospel, so I was in church a lot," Cody said. "Every available service. Sunday service, bible study, vacation bible school, lock-ins. All of that. I was there."
The producer’s first brush with music was in middle school, where he played the alto saxophone in the school jazz band. Opposed to playing classical music, his teacher, Mr. Bell, had the band playing everything from Beyoncé to old-school hits such as Earth Wind & Fire’s “In The Stone” and Cameo’s “Talkin’ Out The Side of Your Neck;” songs that you'd hear played at the annual Southern Heritage Classic in Memphis. In the early 2000s, he would discover producers like J Dilla, Pharell, and Kanye West, which led him down an even deeper rabbit hole of hip-hop music. These producers would be the impetus for him to try his hand at producing. "I would go to my friend's house because we downloaded F.L. Studio on his parent's computer from Limewire, risking viruses and all," Cody said. "We were just making beats. We couldn't even save them at the time."
The music he was introduced to throughout his childhood created a rich tapestry of music taste for Cody. He can identify and connect with ambient melodies and key instruments, which manifests in most of his discography.
CTRL was a foundational album for Cody; it was his first opportunity to work with a major artist, and it supplied him with the confirmation that he was in the right place. What he couldn't foresee was how quickly the songs blew up. "I knew they would be big, but never put a number on it," he said.
The acclaim from CTRL was palpable yet stifling—with such major success, it typecasted Cody into R&B. To combat being pigeonholed, he released his own project, Cody of Nazareth, that explored an array of genres, and reinforced the theme of divinity found throughout his work. The project showcased his versatility not only as a producer but his ability to use his own voice as an instrument as well. Released in March 2019, Cody of Nazareth includes hints of known collaborators SZA and Travis Scott. With 11 songs and no features, the project is sonically what you'd expect in today's punk rock-infused rap — less traditional trap beats and harmonies charged with autotune. With the musical instincts of a DJ and the ear of a choir director, Cody showcased his capabilities far outside the realm of R&B.
To Cody's credit, his willingness to be present in the moment yield even more success, and proved that SZA’s sophomore effort wasn’t a fluke. SOS has steadily remained at No.1 on the charts and is slowly breaking records in the R&B space. SOS is the first R&B album by a woman to spend its first seven weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 since Whitney Houston's Whitney in 1987.
All the while, Cody is using the success to propel him into new collaborations and ventures, like co-producing Chloe Bailey’s “Pray It Away,” and working on his own projects. “Just the experience of putting these two projects together, I feel like I am an actual producer. I feel like I can actually go and help any artists out here put together a great project and give my opinion strongly and stand on it. I feel like I know what I'm talking about.”
Shelby Stewart is a writer from Houston, Texas passionate about covering stories on Southern culture. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her championing Westside Gunn lyrics. You can follow her on Twitter @ShelbyLnStewart