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REVIEW: SZA returns after five years with impressive sophomore album

<p>(Photo: Daniel Sannwald)</p>

(Photo: Daniel Sannwald)

“SOS” is the second studio album by singer Solána Imani Rowe, known professionally as SZA. 

“SOS” comes nearly five years after her critically and commercially successful 3x platinum debut album “Ctrl” released in 2017. Since its release, SZA has enjoyed years of consistent chart-topping singles like 2020’s “Good Days” as well as her two 2021 hits “I Hate U” and her feature on Doja Cat’s “Kiss Me More.” 

In today’s stream-centric culture, SZA enjoys a kind of success and staying power few other artists have been able to match. 

Listening to the album, it’s abundantly clear the five-year gap was not wasted. SZA seems to have spent the time refining her already impressive R&B sound. Despite how long it has been since some of the singles on the album were released, the project still manages to feel fresh and mostly cohesive. This is an especially impressive feat given the extensive 23-song tracklist. 

The album utilizes a spacious, atmospheric style while exploring themes of openness throughout. Everything in the album communicates themes of solitude throughout the project. From the album cover showing SZA alone in a vast sea to her echoing vocals in a handful of songs, listeners are witnessing a SZA that is trying desperately to work through her woes. Many of the tracks feature light instrumentals, like in “Shirt” or “Too Late,” that feel reserved, but these elements begin to shine through as the album progresses. 

One of the best parts of the album is how different some tracks on the album sound while still feeling like they belong. The comedic “Smoking on my Ex Pack” features toxic burns with some witty anime and pop culture references that lighten the mood from the more serious, melodic cuts. 

While the album is generally not as catchy or quick as “Ctrl,” it still features some standout tracks with luscious production. “Kill Bill” carries a punchy base with solid accompanying guitar lines. SZA also explores different types of flow and line deliveries with faster-paced songs like “Low.” 

Given that the album is 23 songs, it tends to struggle with keeping a consistent tone and style. While there are plenty of unique sounds SZA tries on this album, some songs will not be to everyone’s taste. “F2F,” for example, is a pop-punk-inspired track that is interesting but one that may not jive well with long-time fans. It’s this willingness to experiment and try new sounds that make SZA and this album stand out among other R&B and pop rap projects this year.

The length of the project is likely the area most will take issue with the album. It leads to a series of “samey” sounding songs, a point that is compounded by the slow, melodic approach many of the tracks take. It is this approach to the album’s production and overall composition that work in SZA’s favor, however. 

“SOS” features some of SZA’s catchiest, well-realized performances to date. SZA brags about her successes on the title track, dreads a monotonous relationship in “Ghost in the Machine” and laments about a break-up on “Nobody Gets Me.” 

It seems that “SOS” is on its way to having a similar critical and commercial response now, with its robust catalog of tracks. The album reached number one on Billboard’s 200 charts and broke the record for the biggest streaming week for an R&B album. 

Overall, “SOS” is an impressive sophomore album and one of the best R&B releases of 2022. While plenty of artists tend to release lukewarm or “safe” projects after lengthy absences, SZA’s time away from consistent music releasing has delivered a bold follow-up project.

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