SZA Sends Out an ‘SOS’ That Will Be an Emergency Addition to Everyone’s 10-Best Lists: Album Review

At 23 songs and more than an hour in length, SZA’s newly released “SOS” isn’t simply a statement piece: It’s practically a new bible of abstract contemporary soul. From its passionate depths, and its sometimes menacing yet always inviting flow, to its rich and shadowy blues, “SOS” is transcendental R&B at its most entrancing and inventive.

SZA’s five-years-in-the-making follow-up to 2017’s “Ctrl” is cinematic in its scope and tone as it ripples with elements of folk, jazz, pop and ambient electronica and brings in undertones of even surf, trap, grunge and AOR rock to get to its avant-R&B heart. Yet it’s so deeply intimate when its captivatingly crusty siren is just working her vocal magic, employing a smart lyrical display of sentiments jovial, hurt and violent. In essence, “SOS” is a portrait of a woman/artist/innovator asserting her will with a blithe spirit.

That’s one thing that makes SZA unique. You can’t see the seams. On “SOS,” even more so than on “Ctrl,” she makes danger, sex and joy so daringly breezy and buoyant, even if it did did take five years and who-knows-what was happening behind the scenes to get here.

From the ebb-and-flow rush of voices, waters, brass, Morse-code tics and coconut-clunk percussion that fills its introductory title track to the flexed funk finale of “Forgiveness” (complete with an Ol’ Dirty Bastard sample), “SOS” is sending a lot of critics back to their already-published top 10 lists to see if they can belatedly update them, after just one listen. Imagine what’ll happen when we get the chance to really luxuriate in its textures and nuances.

With a cover image inspired by a snapshot of Lady Di on Mohamed Al Fayed’s yacht days before their death, SZA has stated that she sought to pay respect to the notions of isolation that plagued the “people’s princess.” That photograph shows SZA, a one-time marine biology student, on a diving board in the middle of a gorgeous blue ocean, secluded and seduced by the waves. From there, and throughout “SOS,” her intuitive sing-rapping cadence and impromptu, jazzy flow portray her as both insulated and outgoing, withdrawn and looking for resolve (be it love, inner harmony or conflict), but battle-ready.

And definitely with a sense of humor, too. (How pugilistic might SZA be? On the subtly swirling “Blind,” she’s so poised for a fight, “They’re calling me Cassius/And raunchy like Bob Saget.”)

“I’m so mature, I’m so mature,” she croons through the detuned, whistling, breezy pop of “Kill Bill,” before reaching the shores of impending doom and a chorus of “If I can’t have you, no one will/I might kill my ex, not the best idea…/I might kill my ex, I still love him, though/Rather be in jail than alone.”

The willowy R&B of “Seek & Destroy,” with its call of “You push me past my own capacity, boy/Permission to crash, collecting damages, boy…/Seek and destroy, missiles deployed,” is at least as much ominous as it is merely romantic. That’s not to say that SZA is not possessed by — and possessive of — pure romance.

A track produced and co-written by soul classicist Babyface with the Rascals and BLK, “Snooze,” is an old-school, dewy love jam that SZA can’t help but make baleful with the pitch-shifting phrase “How you threatening to leave when I’m the main one crying?” 

SZA’s tears — acted out in several craggy, pained and elated voices — give way to pure ecstasy or agitation when manipulating the swelling, melancholy R&B of “Far,” the sleek, clattering soul of “Too Late” and the warm, Steely Dan-ish ballad “Gone Girl.” When she hits the clarion-clear vocal of “Love Language” (with its haunting violin solo) or the dreamy, AutoTune-tipped “Low,” stressed-out adoration grows icy, and sexuality becomes a weapon. “I’m fuckin’, I ain’t making love no more,” she whispers. 

SZA may occasionally be isolated during “SOS,” but she’s certainly no island. On “Open Arms,” Travis Scott takes the ballad’s low-voiced center, while the spare, guitar-plucked tune allows her tender voice and its chord shifts a grand and gorgeous ascension The twinkly “Used” finds a sultry SZA matching goodbyes and swinging blues with Texan vocalist Don Toliver. And the quiet, bass-and-banjo-plucked “Ghost in the Machine,” with Phoebe Bridgers, find both women’s signature dulcet tones harmonizing in Moebius strip-like fashion. That such lovely quietude is shattered by the buzzing rock-ish guitars of “F2F,” a sharp co-write with Lizzo, and then an epically melodic, folksy country ballad such as “Nobody Gets Me,” is par for the course on “SOS.”

Although there are hummable potential singles that stick out, such as “Shirt,” and singularly contagious tracks such as “Conceited,” “SOS” is a record meant to be heard in its entirety. It would have been entrancing, surely, at double the length.

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