Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: SZA SOS


So much of R&B in the 21st century is concerned with this culture war between tradition and modernity. To simplify it, on one hand there are the bluesy, soulful celebrations of romance and love without cynicism, and on the other end are the pop-leaning, genre-bending conventions that are more self-involved and hedonistic about human relationships. Getting bogged down in which is right or wrong, whether singers still SING in dramatic, gospel-infused manner, and whether anyone still cares about love can feel a lot like “old man yelling at cloud” hoopla over nothing. R&B, like every other genre, has been subsumed into mainstream pop at large, and as a result a lot of its heritage — the church, mainly — has been squeezed out. Similarly, soul music has changed the way the world has: People are lonelier, dating has been commodified by the internet, and fewer young people are experiencing love or any serious relationships. Can you write about love that you aren’t experiencing? Maybe, but it won’t have any weight to it. It makes sense that R&B and every genre of music is now more inward — full of neurosis and torment and nostalgia.

It is here that SZA thrives. She’s established herself as a foremost chronicler of the Black female millennial sexual coming of age. Particularly on Ctrl, her 2017 debut album and breakthrough project, she made the bare naked truth and vulnerability hip and sexy. The poetry of her words with her hoarse, baby doll voice over post-Badu neo-soul production was easy to be seduced by. It was clear then that she was truly a superstar, particularly for the social media age of “hot girl summers,” “Instagram captions,” and “fuckboy” mentalities.

Five long years and a pandemic later, we’re even more online and lonesome, and on her long-awaited second album SOS SZA is more than adept at capturing all the feelings we’ve all seemed to cycle through during that time. It’s a bit like listening to an exposé of all the flaws we obsess over, the insecurities that plague us, the conflicts we get in with lovers, and the fucks we kinda wish we could take back. It’s desire, fear, temptation, ego, success, and failure alike. All the little peaks and valleys of a life — particularly a young life — that eventually add up to a whole.

If Ctrl was like the pop-ification of neo-soul, SOS loses any pretense that this isn’t just a straight-up pop album. Bloated and expansive and wide-ranging, it has all the hallmarks that have come to define mainstream pop over the last two decades. It feels like something that’s been worked over for years — more than a bit overwrought and overwhelming, but the hope is that the sum amounts to being good enough more often than not. There are a lot of times when the album truly flies, on songs like “Low,” “Gone Girl,” and “Conceited.” There are also times when the album is straining to be all things to all people with mixed results.

“F2F” has some Avril-Lavigne-meets-Blink-182 pop-punk styling. “Smoking On My Ex Pack” features SZA showing off some of her rapping expertise. “Nobody Gets Me” is like a Sheryl Crow record. Before a finale that samples Björk and ODB, there are guest appearances from Travis Scott, Don Toliver, Phoebe Bridgers, and an uncredited Lizzo. At one moment, she’s Joni Mitchell, and at the next, she’s Future. But ultimately, the album shines when her songwriting takes center stage. SZA brings a rich complexity and poetic romanticism to her millennial navel gazing that makes it almost impossible to not get wrapped into the yarn she spins. Her neurosis and anxieties make her relatable but also invigorate her music. The line “got my body done and I don’t feel guilty bout it” on “Conceited” is so forthright and honest that you can’t help but be a little impressed at it. “Broad day, sunshine, I’ll find a way to fuck it up still/ Can’t cry about the shit that I can’t change” on “Shirt” is the story of an entire generation’s inner struggle with themselves.

SZA’s ability to be charming and vulnerable in a way that’s easy to identify with and project yourself onto is a strong reason for why her music seems to resonate so strongly at this moment in time. She makes music centered on the self for a self-centered era. People aren’t living outside of themselves, but instead wrestling internally with their own issues. Those too afraid to live now live vicariously through the music, or the music channels their own nostalgia for things they only barely remember. SZA, along with Brent Faiyaz, Summer Walker, and Frank Ocean, are great at turning nostalgia into a musical experience. Whether it’s always a good thing for the music to become more and more closed off and insular is not for any one person to decide, but to quote “Open Arms,” “Who needs self esteem anyways?”

SOS is out now on RCA/TDE.

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