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Thank goodness SZA’s second album was worth the five year wait

Last year, New Zealand singer Lorde opened her third studio album, Solar energy, by flatly rejecting the role many fans have assigned to her on the internet as an omniscient guru/Messiah for millennials and Gen-Zers. “Well, if you’re looking for a savior, that’s not me,” she announced on “The Path.” No shade for the brilliant 26-year-old – the Lorde Hive is borderline cultish – but it’s SZA, a slightly older but newer female voice in mainstream music, who has always found me the most popular candidate for this magisterial position.

Since her massive debut album CTRL in 2017, the 33-year-old singer (whose real name is Solana Rowe) has spent most of her career encouraging young, mostly black women to be their naughtiest, freest selves, all while embracing the messiness that comes with deals with navigating relationships (or ‘situationships’). ”) and achieving self-love. Her emotionally raw, sometimes funny content on that album exposed a frustrating and relieving conundrum about making it through adulthood. By admitting she didn’t have the answers, she actually did.

That recipe of self-confidence, confusion, self-loathing and self-involvement made SZA’s Grammy-nominated debut not only a certified R&B chapter, but a sacred text for modern women plagued by the loneliness of social media and the elusiveness of online dating. Much has changed about the world in the more than five years since she’s released a full body of work, but her devoted legion of Very Online fans—perhaps experiencing a prolonged moment of pause during a pandemic—demand the same level of transgressivity on the in continuation to CTRL. Ahead of the release of her second album, SOSon Friday, a Twitter user wrote, “I better not see any growth or maturity on this sza album tonight.”

Those kinds of demands may sound strange, but while growth and maturity can help an artist like Drake improve their sound, SZA has always handled her most childish instincts and insecurities well – perhaps because her lyrics were mostly inward looking rather than everyone’s out. to paint around. her as a villain (although there are plenty of fuck-you’s directed at her exes on SOS). And with only one album to her credit, it’s understandable that listeners aren’t ready for a completely transformed version of the artist they’ve been so wonderfully introduced to.

Likewise, SZA explores much of the same emotional terrain SOS as she continued CTRL. Over the course of 23 mostly succinct songs, she laments the loss of a cheating ex-boyfriend and hypes herself up before questioning her self-worth and regretting the direction of her now-mainstream career. It’s clear that loneliness and rejection are SZA’s Kryptonite – so much so that the album’s cover was inspired by a sad image of Princess Diana bent over on a diving board attached to a yacht a week before her death. Unfortunately, sometimes the most extreme melancholy can make for the most compelling art – rarely because it makes us feel better about our own lives, just a little less alone.

SOS opens with the breathtaking title track, which samples the 1970s gospel song “Until I Found the Lord (My Soul Couldn’t Rest)” by The Gabriel Hardeman Delegation. It’s similar to the kind of energetic, swaggering opener usually found on a rap album (and you could argue that SZA is a melodic rapper on many of her songs, including this one). “SOS” is also the kind of heightened pep talk a woman might give herself right after being fucked by a partner, or prior to a vengeful girls’ night out. (Come back/She’s so candid,” she spits. “Come back, snatched like a candid one.”) Of course, this level of fuck-you energy only lasts so long until you’re suddenly in the throes of depression. You may repeat this cycle over and over until you begin to slowly heal.

While early tracks like “Seek & Destroy” and the predictably violent “Kill Bill” are delightfully hateful, a more devastating nature unfolds throughout the album. To the wonderful “Special” – a depressing sequel to CTRL“Normal Girl,” if you will, SZA regrets “giving all her energy away to a loser” and the impact his infidelity had on her body image. “Nobody Gets Me” is an unexpected acoustically driven song about the irreplaceability of someone special. The equally surprising grunge song “F2F” is another ode to trying (and failing) to fill that void. One of the album’s most high-profile offerings, “Ghost In The Machine” featuring indie darling Phoebe Bridgers, finds SZA in a particularly desperate, exhausted state, simply “longing for humanity”.

If you get the impression that this album is a total drag, it isn’t. Maybe one of SOSSZA’s most impressive traits, aside from SZA’s ability to express the most difficult emotions out loud, is her sense of humor while doing so. It’s not even that she’s constructing fully fleshed out punchlines, but rather the casual delivery she’s referring to Scarface actress Michelle Pfeiffer as “that white-blonde bitch with the bob” in the Babyface-produced “Snooze,” or when she brags about her butt in “SOS” before abruptly revealing it’s “not real.” On “Smokin’ On My Ex Pack,” she suggests that a beloved rapper she once dated is “cock crazy.” Such brutal honesty and comic relief is needed for an album of such length as this. And yet I’m not sure it’s enough to warrant such an inflated tracklist.

Aside from an obvious editing problem, SOS also suffers from scattering; it’s much less conceptual and more mixtape-inspired than the well-organized CTRL. These songs don’t flow into each other like on her debut, making it a hard album to digest in its entirety without wanting to hop around or completely rearrange the tracklist. In fact, some tracks aren’t necessary at all, like the Travis Scott-backed “Open Arms,” ​​which fails to recreate the magic of his and SZA’s previous collaboration “Love Galore” (his trademark ad-libs on the trap-influenced “Low” are a more useful contribution). Any of the tracks on the album’s second half can be replaced by her Neptunes-produced 2020 single featuring Ty Dolla $ign, “Hit Different,” arguably her most well-crafted and innovative track to date.

While SOS doesn’t feel quite as experimental as her previous album and EPs – perhaps because her signature lo-fi R&B sound has become so popular in recent years – it’s nice to see the Grammy winner support her alternative sad-girl side, as she praised R&B’s version of that internet archetype. And her pen has undeniably sharpened since she sang about sharing a boyfriend with another woman, like swapping shifts with a co-worker.

In both old and new interviews, SZA has been surprisingly candid about how insecure she is about her career; she questions whether she’s fit for the pressures of being a beloved musician, and has even expressed regret over some of her biggest hits. In an interview on Hot 97 this week, she admitted that part of her “didn’t even want to [SOS] Whether she’ll have what it takes to release a third full-length project after this massive run of songs is anyone’s guess. But SOS fans will surely have their fingers crossed for more.