Welcome to “New Music with Nick.” In this column, I will be reviewing some of the most notable new album releases across various genres, focusing on hip-hop, R&B and pop music. Join me in exploring the ever-shifting landscape of the streaming era.
SZA: “SOS” (Dec. 9, 2022)
The last couple of years of R&B and hip-hop music have felt like one long-awaited return after another, and that’s partially thanks to Top Dawg Entertainment’s (TDE) Isaiah Rashad and Kendrick Lamar returning after significant hiatuses with long-awaited albums. It’s practically expected at this point that TDE artist releases will be separated by at least five or six years. For better or worse, SZA has now fit precisely into this trend.
SZA finally returned with “SOS” after exactly five and a half years. Her last compilation, the modern classic and universally acclaimed “Ctrl,” ascended her into superstardom; the anticipation for her follow-up has been growing since. Although it’s debatably unfair to compare her newest project to her magnum opus from half a decade ago, that’s naturally what was going to happen upon release.
Ultimately, “SOS” is not what it could have been as an album, but it still is a good compilation. SZA’s generational talent is the ultimate safety net that an artist can have, and it helps to save this album and make it redeemable. She is one of the most talented figures in the last decade of R&B music, and her potential has clearly been on display for a decade now. 2017’s “Ctrl,” 2014’s “Z” and 2013’s “S” all proved that every aspect of her artistry is in the upper echelon of her genre. Although there are still bright spots and great moments on her newest release, it lacks the overall focus, concision, cohesiveness and quality that we all know SZA is capable of.
“SOS” is a pleasant assortment of random throwaways. Unfortunately, I can’t give it much more credit than that as an album. Let me be clear: it is a nice collection. The large majority of the music is enjoyable. Still, it doesn’t flow together as well as it could. It doesn’t have the same level of powerful and moving moments as her previous projects.
It’s hard for me to believe that there was much thought put into deciding and ordering the final tracklist. It sounds like there could be about five separate EPs (that could each be more cohesive with time and structuring) all scattered haphazardly throughout the tracklist. With an expansive 23 tracks and countless sounds, styles and themes, it’s just not easy to listen from front to back. Quickly, the album loses its vision, struggling to find its way as it goes all over the place sonically.
Despite my issues with the length, structure and lack of direction, certain other aspects truly excelled.
In particular, there were some bold sonic choices that were very well executed. “Forgiveless” and “Smoking on my Ex Pack” see rare cases of SZA rapping, and she delivers at the highest level. The former contains a sample of Ol’ Dirty Bastard and features the R&B superstar delivering bars of a quality and pace uncharacteristic of her. The latter let her shine with lyrical display, this time flowing over a wonderful soul sample. A Phoebe Bridgers feature was a fairly strange addition to see prior to the album’s release, but “Ghost in the Machine” turns out to be one of the best songs. Even “F2F,” the teen pop punk-rock song, actually turns out to be fairly fun and enjoyable.
A few choices didn’t quite pan out. “Notice Me” and “Conceited” try to bring some fun high energy, but after a couple of listens, they lose any sense of excitement and feel so flat and out of place. A handful of tracks felt like pure filler; “Too Late” and “Far” come to mind.
I hate to compare it to “Ctrl,” but “SOS” is just missing some of the key elements that made that album so special. “Ctrl” is so listenable from front to back because of its thoughtful structure and focus. SZA’s vision never falters, and every song is pieced together with such great thought and care. That album displays versatility while also maintaining cohesion — a stellar example of beautiful contemporary R&B.
“SOS” is sadly the opposite in many of these regards. Despite a large break between releases, it still feels incredibly rushed. It almost seems like its main purpose is to clear out her vault of unreleased music rather than putting out a true, focused album. SZA has been public about her frustrations with labels and with the music industry, and it feels like this resentment might have misguided her to just throw out all of her unreleased music to stop fans from begging and to stop her label issues.
Her annoyances with the industry and with her label are totally understandable. TDE could have done a much better job rolling out this album and timing its release properly. SZA has spoken publicly multiple times about her desires to release music that was rejected or delayed by her label.
The hiatus got so long and there was so much repeated false hope that fans seemed to lose a lot of their initial excitement for the project as the years went along. It seems at times like the TDE executives were more focused on arguing with SZA fans on Twitter than they were on helping SZA craft an excellent album.
It will be easily passable for passive listeners and casual fans. The Billboard charts certainly reflect this, with “SOS” holding the number one spot on the top albums charts for four straight weeks now (a rare feat in R&B). It likely won’t satisfy the SZA superfans or the alt-fans who claim “Z” is her best project, but that’s okay. It will still be a successful and memorable album.
The album won’t hold nearly the level of replay value or legendary status of “Ctrl” and that’s okay — it was almost to be expected. However, I did think that after five and a half years we’d get a project that felt less rushed and more carefully constructed. SZA still remains one of the most talented and noteworthy artists in all of modern R&B, and I hope that this is far from the end of her musical career.
Favorite Songs: “Ghost in the Machine,” “Smoking on my Ex Pack,” “Forgiveless,” “Good Days,” “Kill Bill,” “Shirt,” “Open Arms,” “Gone Girl,” “SOS,” “Blind”
Album Score: 77/100
Check out this Spotify Playlist and like it to check out some of my favorite songs of 2022.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.