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Photo Credit: Jacob Webster

SZA Strips Herself of Toxic Love on 'SOS' — And Burns Some Bridges, Too

SZA dissects her ego as she grapples with losing love, what she finds is something greater.

Five years ago when SZA’s debut album Ctrl arrived, it was seen as a fearlessly honest and unconventional R&B album. Throughout Ctrl, there was a rawness that SZA captured. It was as if millennial women were looking in the mirror and dissecting their own lives through the artist’s vulnerable, diary-esque lyrics. She sang of self-image issues, an ex-boyfriend who’d wronged her, love, and the woes of modern dating over deep sonics that emphasized her bellowing voice, creating an album that defined alternative R&B in the late ‘10s. Now, five years removed from the success of Ctrl, she has released SOS, a 23-song album that finds her on a very emotional journey of self-discovery — and as pissed off and unfiltered as she’s ever been before. 

To mistake SOS as a full-on repeat of Ctrl would be to dismiss SZA’s growth as an artist that’s evident throughout. On SOS she is more self-assured than she’s ever been before, exploring what a more confident version of herself sounds like as she grapples with a failed romantic partnership. This can be heard right from the album’s beginning on the Jay Versace-produced opener “SOS,” where she boldly asserts she can’t be replaced: “Punk ass tried to replace me, but the stakes is too high/They can't survive off mini-me/I'm talkin' pedigree.” The singer’s confidence is particularly profound on “Conceited,” too. Over soft piano keys and a laidback beat, she delves into how she transitioned to not needing validation from others, singing: “I got everything and I'm livin' all for rеvenge/I been burnin' bridges, I'd do it ovеr again/'Cause I'm bettin' on me, me, me.”

However, this doesn’t mean that her insecurities don’t bubble to the surface at times. In “Kill Bill,” she sings about killing her ex and his new girlfriend. In referencing the Quentin Tarantino classic she lets out her pent-up anger, unloading how she has often depended on unhealthy relationships when she utters, “Rather be in jail than alone.” The damage that stems from her ex comes up again in “Seek & Destroy,” a song about how she’s navigating coping with the end of this phase of her life, standing firmly in the demise but reckoning with the freedom she currently feels. As she wallows in regret, she continues sharing anecdotes of the lies and the lack of patience that led to the separation, which are particularly prominent on “Love Language.” Interpolating Aaliyah’s “I Don’t Wanna” and “Hit Different,” the track finds SZA coping through heartbroken lyrics, with lines like “You had bitches on the side” and “Ruin my day sayin' shit to hurt me'' conveying the realities of a toxic relationship she left behind.

But it’s hard for her to fully let go, especially when the moments of bliss that were once prevalent in the relationship resurface. “Snooze,” produced by the legendary Babyface, captures this perfectly in its chorus: “I can't lose when I'm with you/How can I snooze and miss the moment?/You just too important/Nobody do body like you do.” You can hear how she yearns for the closeness her ex once provided, eagerly recalling how their closeness stemmed from his ability to please her sexually. But then she’s hit with bittersweet reality again, with songs like “Gone Girl” (which samples the Hall & Oates classic “She’s Gone”) reminding her of how she felt scrutinized and misunderstood by this partner, leading her to eventually walk away from this person she once loved. 

It’s this back and forth of mixed emotions that drives SOS, with all of them explored beyond the sonics of R&B. The TDE singer doesn’t lean on any particular genre for this project, shedding the labels of R&B, rap, alternative music, and indie rock to create her own space that can best be described as airy emo – a lush sound that is often powered by gentle, laidback beats – meets R&B. By doing so, she doesn’t just shed the limitations that Black women in the music industry are often met with but also explores her heartbreak in compelling ways she hasn’t really done before. 

This is the case with the rap-inspired “Smoking on my Ex Pack,” which also happens to be one of her strongest songs across her whole catalog. The substance is biting on the track as she raps: “I'm fuckin' on heartthrobs/I got your favorite rapper blocked/I heard the dick was whack/Your favorite athlete screamin'.” Whether allusions to her past fling with Drake or anonymous professional sport stars, the delivery of the lyrics is impressive, showing that SZA can be just as clever in her songwriting as a rapper as she is a singer. Another standout track is “F2F,” where she unexpectedly — but successfully — croons about longing and being lonely over angsty rock production. The line “I fuck him cuz I miss you” stays with you well after the track is done, SZA’s use of sex as means of deflecting how she really feels, is made soberingly clear in its repetition.

In Ctrl, SZA painted herself as a fragile and love-stricken woman. Although there are parts of that on SOS, what makes this new album different is in its sharp lyricism, the artist realizing she must dissect her own ego while delving into the gloom and sadness that comes with heartbreak, too. In being real with her romantic life, ego, and trauma, SZA sounds empowered in a way she hasn’t before, resulting in an album that is just as powerfully relatable as it is cathartic.