SZA’s ‘SOS’ Is A Heartbreaking Reminder That Our Fears Never Go Away

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On her debut album, Ctrl, SZA established herself as a household name by way of spellbinding melodies and relatable words. The then 20-something R&B songstress shared poignant accounts of body dysmorphia, heartbreak, loneliness, and growing older. Now, in her early 30s, the old soul we’ve come to know and love reels over a beautiful-yet-cruel existence, accepting the painful wisdom that comes with age. While SZA remains on a spiritual transformation, her new album, SOS serves as a reminder that insecurities, like the ones she sang about on Ctrl will persist, no matter how far along you are on your journey. At 23 tracks, it’s not as cohesive as its predecessor, but SOS still is a vital chapter in the SZA universe.

The looseness of SOS allows the album to breathe a little more freely. It opens on its title track, on which SZA addresses plastic surgery rumors (“That ass so fat, it look natural, it’s not”), disavows trifling men (“Punk ass tried to replace me, but the stakes is too high”), and announces that she’s back, and presumably better than ever (“This ain’t no warnin’ shot, case all you hoes forgot.”) While the intro seems to establish the narrative that SZA is now a healed woman, it leads into a collection of stories which see her both regress and grow, and regress and grow again.

On SOS, SZA presents us with a unique and rather polarizing set of coping mechanisms, from tapping into feelings of codependency, fantasizing about killing her ex, and sleeping with other men, for the sole purpose of forgetting one specific man. Her journey manifests by way of expressing herself through her signature brand of R&B with a rap flow, as well as by way of showing her rap chops, spitting rhymes about blocking “your favorite rapper” and going ghost on “your favorite athlete,” as she struggles to move on.

Old habits die hard as SZA experiences the stages of grief, in no particular order. She hasn’t been linked to a significant other since Ctrl, however, the overall narrative of the album seems to center around her dealing with a breakup. SZA demonstrates a raw sense of self-awareness, as she accepts blame for the relationship’s demise, but also finds herself in denial that the relationship is over, expressing desperation and longing to mend things.

Songs like “Conceited” and “Far” offer fans a glimmer of hope, as SZA appears to find solace in her own company, despite having just poured her heart out over her ex in the previous tracks. But she also quickly becomes aware of the danger of being alone with her thoughts for too long. On one of the album’s more vulnerable tracks, “Special,” she puts a laundry list of insecurities on display on what feels like a modern-age update of Radiohead’s “Creep.”

The previously released tracks, including “Shirt,” “I Hate U,” and “Good Days,” have already been known and loved by fans for almost two years. While they may feel weirdly-placed on the album, they are still vital parts to the overall narrative of grief and emotional recovery.

Despite having been released two years ago, “Good Days” makes for a solid penultimate track, expressing a hopeful outlook for the future the amid emotional turmoil she just sang of for the past hour. “All the while / I await my armored fate with a smile / I still wanna try / I still believe in good days,” SZA sings on the chorus of the therapeutic self-help anthem.

This pattern of seemingly letting go, only to tap back into feelings of insecurity continues throughout the entirety of the album, but by the end, the listener is introduced to a more affirmed, principled SZA.

SOS is SZA’s riskiest work to date. Dropping an album with 23 tracks in the age of streaming is always daunting, but SZA is never one to shy away from any emotion. Sure, the tracklist could use a slight trim, and while the album’s narrative is less structured than that of Ctrl, the order of tracklist and each song’s individual message are reflective of a non-linear healing journey everyone must embark at some point in their lives.

SOS begs the question, has SZA healed since inviting us into the rocky, uncertain world of Ctrl? But perhaps a better question to ask oneself may be, is anyone ever really fully healed from their traumas? It’s a painful reminder that our shortcomings and our insecurities will always make themselves known. But it also shows listeners that a now older and wiser SZA will always emerge strong through heartbreak and fear.