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SOS CJ Thorpe-Tracey , December 15th, 2022 11:17

The St Louis-born vocalist takes the horny-sad vibes to a whole other level, finds CJ Thorpe-Tracey

All the phoney shit aside
I just want what’s mine

Emerging more than five years after her debut album Ctrl (and three years later than it was first announced) it’s been a long, odd wait for SZA’s second album SOS – to the point that over the past couple of years SZA seemed to even have a vague public spat online with Top Dawg record label boss Punch about getting it out there.

That’s a bad sign, right? Within forty-five seconds my first thought about this excellent album is the same as my concluding thought will be, an hour later: Solána Imani Rowe is a world class talent – one of the very best – and she’s not getting good enough service. Quite apart from all the horrible exes and bad shags and treacherous frenemies strewn across the songs, in real life SZA’s not being protected well enough by the business folks around her. And maybe the insecurity of that corporate failure is starting to poke through the surface of some otherwise phenomenal music.

It’s not like SZA vanished into the gap between albums. She’s not the Stone Roses. She has an Oscar nomination for her Kendrick Lamar collab ‘All The Stars’, from Black Panther. She’s guested on a pile of hits and kept the big singles coming, over the years. She’s done all the necessary social media teaser nonsense and fully embraced the hyperreal, ultra-branded expectations placed upon a modern pop superstar.

Then a month ago we got the blood-soaked body-swap psychodrama video for ‘Shirt’, co-starring LaKeith Stanfield. The song’s slow groove and aching, upswung melody belied the pace and high fantasy violence of the visuals. Even ‘Shirt’ had been long teased – fans got snippets of it online way back in 2021.

Now the album finally lands and it’s enormous. SOS is twenty-three tracks long and sonically it sprawls all over the hood. From low to high, clipped to soaring, SZA’s vocals are icily superb and her overwrought writing is vivid throughout. These progressive, ambitious melodies act like stitching to hold together the patchwork of an exceptionally diverse approach to genre and production. SOS hops around like mad. And in that context, with such an open-minded attitude to style and form, SZA deliberately – aggressively, even – forces herself into the chaotic centre, to become one of those backbone artists, whereby the music will pay service to her vision, not the other way around. It bodes well, because clearly she could sing just about anything.

Apart from slow grooves, electronic pop, and hip hop structures, there’s also a loose-limbed indie acoustic sensibility brought to quite a few of the songs. On a lot of R&B pop records those attempts at a token four-chord indie strum are the awful weak points (Lizzo’s lame-ass ‘Coldplay’ definitely shouldn’t have made the cut on her album, for example). By contrast SZA’s performances and lyric writing in that boring genre easily stand firm. It’s like she knows how to use (and abuse) white boy floppiness so effectively, it gives the harder, deeper stuff even more power.

Last week she told Billboard that because she grew up around white people, in musical terms, she accessed that kind of sound earlier. She’s having to consciously shift direction towards embracing artifice, from where she considers the ‘natural energy’ of her roots. SZA says “I wanted to be, like, crass. I’ve created the person I wanted to see in the world.”

So how does she pull it all together, especially over so many tracks, without SOS becoming bland mainstream mush? Aside from vocal variety, she does it with some truly exhausting emotional content. However dazzling it can be, SOS is often a murderously miserable record: broken-hearted, emotionally chaotic, confused and traumatised. It’s a record about desperately, unwisely, clinging onto some of the worst shit ever. A record about still having the horn for men who long proved they’re disgusting. SZA navigates such power juggling, the stupidity of fame, her broader self-knowledge, with the vicious aplomb of a daytime reality TV show, where the ratings spike when there’s a fight.

‘Blind’ for example, could be the lightest of finger-picked acoustic meanderings, except her staccato lyric slices it up.

Hey, my past can’t escape me
My pussy precedes me
My, my, how the times change
I’m still playing the victim
And you still playing the ‘pick-me’

You still talkin’ ‘bout babies
And I’m still taking the Plan B

There was this one moment in that violent ‘Shirt’ video where, after abandoning her partner-in-crime (or alter-ego) to get cut to pieces by white-coated paranoia avatars, SZA’s character, now alone, suddenly turns and shoots round after round into an empty alley wall. Then you realise she’s murdering her own shadow, which detaches and drops dead onto the ground. The moment is gone in a flash – it’s a small detail. But listening to SOS (trying to get my head around all the hard dirt being uncovered), I think how apt and emotionally indicative that short scene was.

SZA represents herself shockingly often as a kind of shadow of herself in moments of death and of liberation, both at once. In the slightly Eminem-ish ‘Kill Bill’ her narrator briefly pretends to herself she’s okay with her ex and his new girl, while also pondering killing him. A therapist may try to distract her (impotently) with the notion of other guys, but no, by the final chorus she’s inevitably done the job and offed them both.

‘Nobody Gets Me’ is another heartwrekt indie ballad that comes off like a spikier Lana Del Rey, with a similar use of edgy post-millennial language to undercut what could otherwise be a soul ballad. The sentiment may boil down to “nobody gets me but you,” but the first verse has this ace summary line –

You were balls-deep, now we beefin’

That’s SOS in a nutshell. Like the shot-dead shadow, SZA liberates and destroys herself easily as blinking. She repeatedly sums up the whole in neat, seedy phrases. There are so many beefs here, it almost gets silly. The problem isn’t that the sheer scale of harshness and loneliness with exes, new partners, business acquaintances, whoever, is draining (though it is). The problem is that she skitters around all those feelings so quickly. One senses – and hopes on her behalf – that it’s not real.

‘Special’ splices flavours of Alicia Keys’ ‘New York State Of Mind’ to the self-loathing of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’. The craft is showing, so is she making it too obvious? I don’t actually enjoy this much apparent self-loathing over the course of a long record, so if there are clues that it is song-craft, rather than self-excavation, then I’m heartened. In conversation, SZA is acute about distinctions between reality and persona, which gives a reassuring clue that at least some of it is performative.

This is how I start to wonder if outside forces have, for a while, tried to manipulate her public character to present as ‘troubled’, or an antihero, while SZA herself is pushing in another direction, at least for now.

Talking to Billboard again: “That’s like my biggest goal right now, is to learn to enjoy myself and be happy.” She says, “I know that I’m blessed and I have a lot of opportunities, but I don’t know, am I building myself, like chasing after superstardom? I don’t know if that’s sustainable for me, or for anybody. It’s all so scary. I hate being on camera. I hate talking because I put my foot in my mouth a lot. It’s not like the album pressure, it’s just like life is fucking hard and to be expected to do anything at a high level while life is life-ing is fucking crazy. And then you’re supposed to be a nice person on top of that!”

Artists fretting publicly about putting their foot in their mouth is another red flag.

Meanwhile, before even listening to ‘Ghost In The Machine’ I’m annoyed that Phoebe Bridgers shows up on SOS at all. Bridgers is becoming so incredibly ubiquitous on other folks’ records, it’s starting to have the opposite effect than intended. I love her music and some of her own collabs and cover versions (she nailed Bo Burnham’s ‘That Funny Feeling’ for example) but right now she brings a kind of magic indie countercultural ‘good for business’ aura that everyone covets a piece of, regardless genre or artistic vision. I accept this is my British snobbery: the Americans simply don’t think like we do, when it comes to having a celebrity pal on an (ultra-hip, genre bending R&B electro pop) album, who was already a guest on five other records this autumn, including the solo album of the singer out of fucking Mumford & Sons. That’s on me, though.

Then suddenly ‘F2F’ (which Lizzo has a writing credit on) spins another sonic one-eighty, taking a similar horny-sad theme but sounding so much like a basic alt-pop jam (complete with fuzzy guitar stop-starts) that it could be Olivia Rodrigo, or even Maisie Peters. Miley Cyrus would slay this tune. It may be the album’s most plain upbeat moment, though the chorus is “I fuck him cos I miss you.”

It’s true for many artists but especially true here: if you dig SZA’s dextrous voice and don’t mind a load of misery, you may easily (and rightly) fall in love with SOS. I’m adoring her instrument and all the heady iconoclasm. She makes tough singing sound so easy, one can miss the tumbling journey of it all, and fail to notice the heights she’s reached along the way. And of course, it’s only because of that vocal talent and these lyrics, that the audio production can throw itself all around the park.

Also, because SZA can spit too, I think she gets bracketed too closely to the hip hop universe, when her actual vibe is so much broader, and leans nearer to the psychedelic adventures of FKA Twigs, alongside the minimalist, nihilist pinup tendencies of Del Rey. Nihilism is key. It’s starting to do my head in how much nihilism and vengefulness are centred in this modern pop, presented as though that’s somehow a more truthful part of our emotional experience than, say, the simpler ups and downs of lust and loss. A question I can’t figure is: is it self-disempowering that she embraces the tropes, or the opposite?

If there’s a failure in SOS it’s how monumentally hard it tries, as if the non-creative people around the artist are still demanding more, or demanding different, or trying to control the creative output, to a point that risks slaughtering confidence and maybe results in the desperate scattergun shooting of one’s own shadow.

A brilliant, clever, broken junkyard of an album, often compositionally and melodically so gaspingly good, I’ve completely fallen for large chunks of it. Yet at times (too many times) SOS risks coming off like self-exposing fan service for the lowest common denominator of the TikTok succubus mob. It’s too long. It may be two great albums. I might have a go at dividing the tracks myself. And this is an odd conclusion to draw from listening to a record and doing a bit of casual online reading about an artist – but I’ve ended up where I started, with a snowballing worry that SZA has enough greatness to be still higher up the food chain, and what she needs and deserves is better service from the business plods around her. So they tell her less and listen to her more. So they help her stop worrying about herself and better trust the value of what she already contributes, which is both bloody and golden.