“I just want what’s mine,” SZA announces in “SOS,” the title song and opener of her second studio album. She spends the rest of the album wrestling with exactly what that means. Does she want casual sex or lasting love, relationships or independence, revenge or forgiveness, self-questioning or self-respect, familiar problems or a new start, power or trust? SZA’s music melts down styles — singing, rapping, rock, R&B, pop, folk, indie-rock, electronica — to ponder and interrogate her conflicting impulses. And she juggles them all against the backdrop of her career and the demands of celebrity and of social media, where she regularly galvanizes her fans with teasers and snippets.
Solána Rowe, who records as SZA, has only two official studio albums in a decade-long career. “SOS” was preceded by “Ctrl,” which she originally released in 2017 but expanded by seven new songs in June 2022. Yet albums are only part of SZA’s sprawling output; she has been releasing singles and EPs since 2012 and racked up guest spots with, among many others, Kendrick Lamar, Summer Walker, Lorde, Megan Thee Stallion and Maroon 5. Even in collaborations, SZA’s voice always leaps out: pungent and plaintive, sometimes brazen and sometimes forlorn, easily demanding attention.
Along the way, SZA, 33, has moved from the left-field electronic experiments of her early EPs to savvy but still probing pop, as the mainstream bends toward her ideas. “Ctrl” has been certified multiplatinum; “All the Stars,” her duet with Lamar on the “Black Panther” soundtrack, was nominated for an Academy Award, and she won a Grammy singing with Doja Cat on “Kiss Me More.”
SZA’s gift is her unpredictable and emotionally charged flow, the complex craftsmanship she puts behind songs that sound like spontaneous confessions. Her vocal lines flaunt quirks and asymmetries that are simultaneously conversational and strategic. SZA can race through syllables like a rapper, then land on a melodic phrase that soon turns into a hook. Her melodies are casually acrobatic, like the syncopated, ever-widening leaps she tosses off in “Notice Me.”
With 23 songs, “SOS” arrives as a long, nuanced argument SZA is having with her companions and with herself. It’s not a narrative concept album, but the songs are connected by recurring threads: a roundelay of infidelities and reunions, betrayals and connections, self-doubt and self-affirmation.
The songs leap from personal beefs to universal quandaries, while SZA challenges herself as both musician and persona. She presents herself not as a heroine but as a work in progress who knows she’ll make more mistakes. “Now that I ruined everything I’m so [expletive] free,” SZA exults in “Seek & Destroy,” even as the slow, minor-key track tries to drag her down.
“SOS” draws on multiple producers and collaborators, invoking old styles and seizing recent ones. In “Kill Bill,” SZA fantasizes about killing her ex and his new girlfriend, sounding both lighthearted and dangerous as the production spoofs a plush R&B ballad. In “F2F,” she starts with earnest folk-pop and blasts into rock as she insists that she’s only cheating with someone “because I miss you.”
In “Gone Girl,” she warns a partner about getting too clingy — “I need your touch, not your scrutiny,” she sings, “Squeezing too tight, boy you’re losing me” — on the way to a chorus that echoes “She’s Gone” by Hall & Oates. And in the delicate ballad “Special,” she chides herself for letting someone destroy her self-esteem using melodic hints of “Creep” by Radiohead and “The Scientist” by Coldplay. She sounds natural, even unguarded, in every setting.
“SOS” leans into every shade of SZA’s mixed feelings. Slow-grind ballads like “I Hate U,” “Used,” “Love Language,” “Open Arms” and “Blind” detail her anger at boyfriends’ bad behavior, yet admit she’s still drawn to them. But in the quietly resolute “Far,” she insists she’s “done being used, done playing stupid,” and in “Conceited,” she bounces assertive vocal lines off hooting keyboard chords and crisp programmed drum sounds as she declares, “I been burnin’ bridges, I’d do it over again/’Cause I’m bettin’ on me, me, me.” And she should. There’s bravery and beauty in admitting to uncertainty.