How does vulnerability and confidence sound? Much like SZA's SOS, apparently. After a five year wait, the singer-songwriter's sophomore full-length release communicates the condensed emotions of that time period. The mood is all over the place, with the album's soundscape delivering it through diverse genres, and it couldn't be more apt.
Sat atop a diving board, surrounded by an enormous body of water, SZA's solitude on the cover of SOS captures the singer's inner monologues which are filtered through the songs. The cover is inspired by a 1997 photograph of Princess Diana on her vacation in Portofino, Italy. Asked about the reference, Sza stated that she opted to emulate the photograph "Because I just loved how isolated she felt, and that was what I wanted to convey the most."
The album opens with the titular track, "SOS", where SZA voices the overall theme of what's coming in the rest of the album. She doesn't hesitate to vocalize what's essentially her diary entries, with her insecurities, jealousy, and discontentment all displayed transparently. In grappling with her stardom since her breakout in the music industry, she found herself dealing with all the same emotions that everyone, at some point or another, also feels.
In "Kill Bill", SZA references Tarantino's two part film while also revealing her dependence on the presence of another. "I might kill my ex, not the best idea/His new girlfriend's next, how'd I get here?/I might kill my ex, I still love him, though/Rather be in jail than alone", she sings in an eerily soothing voice. In the last line, she even switched it to a scenario where she already killed her ex and his new girlfriend. "Rather be in hell than alone", she declared.
This borderline unhealthy need to be with someone is a common theme in SZA's body of work, as she alluded to it before in her 2017 cut, "Love Galore". Her admittance, "Wish I was comfortable just with myself/But I need you, but I need you, but I need you", becomes more poignant in hindsight. Her dreamy collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers, "Ghost in the Machine", saw the two singers taking in each other's influence, while SZA addresses her destructive habits again, "Can you touch on me and not call me after?/Can you hate on me and mask it with laughter?"
SZA's references are expansive yet also inward-looking, with an interpolation of Aaliyah's "I Don't Wanna" and her own 2020 single with Ty Dolla $ign, "Hit Different" both referenced in the same song, "Love Language". The album's sonic scope covers soul samples, acoustic guitar, classic R&B production, to rock-influenced riffs, of which SZA glides over smoothly without losing her essence.
What's presented in SOS is anything but neat. SZA claims that she's numb to being used all the time in "Used", while also confessing that she did the same just a few tracks later. "Hate that I can't let go of you enough, this why/I fuck him 'cause I miss you", she belted out in the pop-punk anthem "F2F". In "Far", she then stated that she's "Done being used".
From one song to the next, emotions jump flippantly. SZA's discomfort with herself is addressed in "Gone Girl", yet the next track, "Smoking on My Ex Pack", she confidently raps "I'm fuckin' on heartthrobs/I got your favorite rapper blocked". The breadth of conflicting feelings illustrate how human it is to be a mess. To her credit, her confessional nature seems to be infectious. In "Open Arms", SZA once again brings out the more vulnerable, gentler side of Travis Scott.
In what might be her last album, SZA's versatility and potential are-perhaps cruelly-shined on. Intimate, petty, self-conscious, confident, and emotional all the way through, SOS is an opus that listeners can only hope will be topped some time in the future.