The Raw Affection and Aggression of SZA’s ‘SOS’

With her debut album, 2017’s “Ctrl,” SZA established herself as a singer-songwriter quite like no other. While her early EPs had teased refreshing variations on contemporary R&B designs, her first full-length release revealed a fully-formed artistry with no obvious, discernible precedents. Its songs took bold, expressive liberties with form and color, revealing a fresh aesthetic within the context of pop R&B and hip-hop immediacy. On her follow up, “SOS,” SZA takes a freer reign yet, fleshing her idiosyncratic soul stylings and raw emotion into a set of songs that defy categorization. The lyrics alternate between themes of helpless attachment and fierce independence, while the music recedes further into an aesthetic domain of SZA’s own.

The title track opens with the Morse code distress call and breaks into a  recording of the Gabriel Hardeman Delegation’s 1976 gospel exhortation, “Until I Found the Lord (My Soul Couldn’t Rest).” The muffled backdrop and spectral vocal harmonies provide an alien backing track, over which SZA begins, “Give me a second, give me a minute / Nah, lil’ bitch, can’t let you finish.” She gets straight to flexing, over the discordant murmur, with the fluidity of a freestyle, dangling melismatic shapes that trail off ultimately in an exclamation of “Ooh, oh, I cried.” “Kill Bill” follows, and SZA sets off singing. settling steadily into classic R&B melodies, and building to a cathartic hook with another hook built-in. The refrain begins, “Oh, I just killed my ex, not the best idea,” and the chorus ends with SZA reckoning, “Rather be in hell than alone.“ Come “Seek & Destroy,” SZA exudes her phrases with an effortless cool, her melodies weaving paths around which sputtering kicks and snares connect the dots. You can hear how a beat has been built around her stresses, punctuating percussive irregularities in the ramshackle source recording. The real thrust, again, comes upon the chorus, when SZA goes on to howl, “I had to do it to you… Don’t make me do it to you.”

SZA lapses gracefully into melodic trap on “Low,” locking into a groove. She swells into melodies, issues sprightly adlibs, then falls into cadences to drop a couple bars. In a tone that taunts and teases, she raps, “If you see me out in public, you don’t know me, keep it silent / In the bedroom, I be screamin’, but outside, I keep it quiet.” The hi-hats splatter to trap rhythms, while the audio is grimy and murky, breaking off in clumps before the chorus, before vanishing again into gain and hiss. A lingo of bouncing and skipping hardens into a desperate plea for solitude, as SZA exclaims, “Wherever you are, don’t call me.”

“Love Language” flows to the momentum of aquatic, rhythm guitar scrapings. The defiance of convention that SZA’s often indecipherable vocal seems to flaunt is consistent with liberties exhibited elsewhere. This time, however, she reverts to traditional love song fare, beckoning, “Talk to me in your love language.” One song later, however, she sings, “It’s so embarrassing,” before she lets out  frail, re-pitched reiterations of “I’m blind.” By the point of “Used,” SZA’s dual susceptibilities to romantic attraction and repulsion have become a constant. As a more beat-driven number frames SZA’s outpourings in routine, featured artist Don Toliver stops the music between verses and inserts his own, unmemorable hook about prospects of reconnection — “I feel like it’s over / Something callin’ to get closer.” SZA follows suit with “Snooze,” in which she alternates between a syncopated, folk-R&B stammer and stretches of clean, laidback choruses — “Can’t lose when I’m with you.” 

Lyrics continue to fluctuate violently, while sounds continue to surprise. “Notice Me” resembles a deconstructed, lo-fi pop-R&B demo, haphazardly delegated to ambitious hip-hop remix treatment. Lyrics now bridge the gaps — “I’m not trying to be your girlfriend / I’m just trying to be your person.” Like in many of the album’s songs, SZA runs through two rounds of verses and open-ended choruses, then ends abruptly, as the track is filtered into a sputter. Vaguely impressionistic numbers start and stop at their own volition. “Gone Girl” begins over jazzy guitars and follows a catchy bridge to another insistent chorus, which SZA delivers rather abrasively over a caricatural, ‘80s R&B instrumental. “Ah ah” vocal harmonies fill out the space as SZA reveals a speaker’s disappearance — “Gone, gone, girl, gone, girl / You better learn how to face it.”

“Smoking on My Ex Pack” marks a change in sentiment, with SZA standing her ground as she repeatedly raps, “Smokin’ on my ex pack tonight.” It’s a nonsensically provocative call to action, although its mobilizing beat dissolves into an open chorus, making for another erratic clipping. “Ghost In the Machine,” SZA’s unpredictable collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers, is a stirringly abrasive variation on a recurring template. SZA adopts ramshackle, folk accompaniment and follows her usual designs. The chorus, despite its unremarkable lyrics, “You’re like humanity, drowning in vanity,” stands out musically more than anything, with woozy, manipulated harmonies. A haunting, rickety, off-kilter pace and serrated finish create a sense of unease. Bridgers’ voice, midway, emerges seamlessly amid the dark, weathered soundscape. 

In “F2F,” SZA turns her raw vocals and guitar work toward some country stylings, which defy all odds by erupting into a distorted, pop punk chorus. This patently tasteless shocker of a song  stands out sorely and is simultaneously a bit of a banger. Upon its chorus, SZA’s steals the show with a refrain of “I fuck him ’cause I miss you.” The numerous tracks that follow can sound like fragments of finely-crafted singer-songwriter fare, played back on hissing tape and skipping turntables. “Nobody Gets Me” progresses classically, rising and resolving into a cathartic chorus, whereupon SZA finds herself reduced to cries of “Nobody gets me, you do.” The fragile exposé gives way to an audacious anthem, with “Conceited,” in which SZA belts, “‘Cus I’m betting on me, me, me… I got no reason to depend on you.” Such brutal directness packs an especial punch as SZA’s words materialize over a propulsive beat. 

“Special” is a condensed, elemental impression, in which a slipshod snare keeps time as SZA sings, “Wish I was special / Just like you.” Vocal samples distort and blur, and the incidental noise recalls early bedroom productions of How to Dress Well. “Too Late” staples SZA’s candid, guitar-backed vocals to a dance-ey production, awkwardly built around her isolated vocals, The percussively-framed chorus highlights the relative silliness of the recurring sentiment, its latest form being “Is it too late for us? / We both dangerous.” As we continue, “Far” is a fragment that frames SZA in squeaky, trap tectonics, and fades out with her singing, “I’m far, ’cause I can’t trust nobody.” “Shirt” offers a running commentary of sliced stops and starts, head-nodding propulsion and dub echo traces, as SZA is left to unwind her melodies over a humming dissonance. She returns to a cheekier tune — “Bloodstain on my shirt / New bitch on my nerves / Old nigga got curved / Goin’ back on my word.” 

“Open Arms,” featuring Travis Scott, is a default to a standard love song. In something of a belter, SZA histrionically declares, “I’ll be right here / With open arms.” What sets this song apart is how Travis Scott emerges, lo-fi and processed, within the murky mix, his lyrics describing a relationship in limbo, before he cuts back to where SZA left off. It’s as if two potential songs, at different times, exist scrambled, juxtaposed, and left to drown one another out, before they fade into a sample of tribal drums. “I Hate U” stands out for its insistent groove, syncopated melodic flow, and collage of double-tracked, muffled, and reverbed voicings. Among its catchy melodies, you can clearly hear, “If you wonder if I hate you,” “I do,” and later, “Fuck you.” Ultimately, SZA comes to some closure of sentiment upon the album’s final chorus. “Forgiveless,” carries us through the end, with sampled rapping from Old Dirty Bastard, sounding as raw as ever, over a gritty boom-bap beat. The throwback throbbing, playing out after SZA’s sonic excursions, sounds as if it emanates from a distant sphere. But SZA’s quirky inflections and catchy singsong fit neatly atop, as she succinctly concludes, “I might forgive it, I won’t forget it.” The beat goes on, and you can hear a new spring in her step.

SOS” releases Dec. 9 on Apple Music.