Review Summary: One dimensional and bloated as it may appear at times, S.O.S. nonetheless manages to communicate enough of SZA’s charisma and personality to make repeated listens rewarding
A five year gap between LPs can be a bit of a death sentence in a genre geared towards continuous media presence but SZA’s hardly been keeping radio silence since 2017’s Ctrl was released. Nonetheless, it was a bit of a V-8 moment when S.O.S. dropped, a slap to the dome reminding the world of what a stir her debut had made. I vaguely remember the general impression of that album being one of potential, that SZA was, no doubt, a talent to be reckoned with, but one who would likely have to grow into a unique style that could stand out among the RnB pack. So it was with a sense of anticipation that I started her sophomore release, with hope that the five year wait would pay off in a new sense of maturity and artistic growth for SZA. And did it? Well, yes and no.
Two impressions throughout and the first, the most immediate was: Holy hell, every song feels like it serves the exact same purpose as the one before, like this is consistent to the point of blandness. It’s glossy, gleaming, immaculate, slick to the point that there’d be almost nothing to grab onto if not for the grit and charisma of SZA herself. Often, that slickness does translate to monotony, the choir on Gone Girl and the rapping-and-chipmunk-soul combo on Smoking on My Ex Pack end up being such a breath of air despite not even happening until ten tracks into the thing, at which point, on my initial listen, I wasn’t so much dreading the next track as just letting them slide by, almost unnoticed. The dynamic range is limited to the point of dreariness; the beats themselves are dependable, occasionally good enough to stand on their own right, but mostly taking a back seat to SZA, a practice that is de rigueur for the genre, but when the likes of Sudan Archives is showing just how much a backing track can elevate an RnB performance, it all seems, if immaculately polished, a bit stilted, a bit stale.
But, and here we get to the second main impression, after repeated listens in which I focused on SZA herself, SZA as a personality outside and in front of the complete musical package, SZA as a wit, as that weird, quasi-pagan object of worship that seems to be the social role of the female pop star, I found that she consistently displays enough flair, enough cool charisma, enough emotional complexity to nearly carry off the whole thing on the strength of her voice and lyrics alone. While her vocal range has never reached the technical heights of some of her contemporaries, her greatest vocal strength is her knack for emotional subtlety; her delivery at turns sultry, frigid, fiery, but always collected, controlled, cool.
Kill Bill is a murder-fantasy earworm in which SZA weighs the options between moving on from a relationship and just murdering him and his new partner, the tone both playful and melancholy. On album highlight Gone Girl, SZA casually drops the knowledge that her partner is two-timing, a well-worn RnB cliché, with a sense of wistfulness and uncertainty and ultimately a hint of personal affirmation and growth that is deeply moving in its emotional depth and elegant in its emotional progression. The lines on the bridge, “Inward I go when there’s no one around me/ and memories drown me, the further I go”, beautiful in their own right, are communicated with a subtly and elegance that are SZA’s greatest strengths as a singer and vocalist. The running theme throughout jumps between self-affirmation and struggle, as SZA chronicles personal strength, longing and fallibility with cleverness and humanity. SZA’s not content to simply play the role of regal pop-goddess; her vulnerabilities and insecurities are still as much on display as on Ctrl, but delivered with poise and cool finesse. She so adeptly weaves personal, confessional undertones into the revenge-fantasy luridness and sex-soundtrack bump-n-grind strewn throughout the album that it’s rare that her personal contributions to S.O.S. sound pre-packaged or empty, in spite of the sterile production.
All of which is immediately belied by the album’s biggest misstep, the breathtakingly insipid F2F, an incongruous pop-rock anthem that highlights all of the album’s worst qualities while displaying few of its best. The chorus of “I fuck him cause I miss you”, no more crass than many a line on S.O.S. is made ludicrous by a total lack of the emotional depth that made similar vulgarities on the album both startling and harmonious. The whole number, canned instrumental sound, total auditory vapidity, that blinding production glare that’s been dumped over the whole thing like a bucket of high-gloss paint, it all stands out like a sore thumb while highlighting a whole lot of what’s wrong with the album.
Yes, S.O.S. is bloated, with maybe a half-dozen songs whose excision would only improve the album and maybe a half-dozen more that are solid enough in their own right, but contribute nothing that isn’t displayed better elsewhere on the album. But an overindulgence in album length is pretty much a genre trope at this point; if you get into an RnB release expecting it to be either over a half hour or under an hour, I’m not sure what to tell you. It’s the slickness of the whole thing that makes it sound completely disposable on first listen though, in spite of all the strengths of SZA’s voice and delivery. It's incongruous that an album that is at heart a deeply human and honest self-portrait of self-affirmation and self-destructiveness should sound so manufactured, so inhuman. There is a beautifully authentic album somewhere in here, full of warmth, humor and depth, but it’s something that has to be dug for, beneath the frigid apollonian exterior. As it stands, S.O.S. shows that if SZA were to separate her expression as an artist and her output as a pop entertainer, she would be more than capable of an album deserving of all the hyperbolic acclaim this album is currently receiving. And after giving it a good few spins, and really searching for what all that sheen’s obscuring, I for one am definitely pulling for her to do so. I just hope it doesn’t take another five years.