SOS! I’ve Lost CTRL.
"Damn right, I'm the one!"
SZA is one of this generation's pillars of R&B music. It's been a decade since the start of her career, and the growth she's seen has been both record breaking as well as inspiring. SOS has been just as successful impact wise as the CTRL era in my opinion, and has set some records along the way. But before I can dive into her sophomore project, I wanna take a look at the journey to where we are today.
Early listeners like myself remember her 2014 project Z, her third EP, but the first release as an artist at Top Dawg Entertainment. The project was ten solid records, with "Child's Play" featuring Chance The Rapper being certified gold by the RIAA. 2014 was also a good year for SZA as a writer, as she has credits on Beyoncé & Nicki Minaj's hit single "Feeling Myself". I wouldn't hear or see much of her outside of a few features for the next year or so, and then came the drama surrounding her debut album, CTRL.
The now classic album was slated to release in late 2016, but faced a few delays for a variety of reasons such as label considerations (keep this in mind for later), creative decisions & refining the album's concept and sound. This lead to the official release date of June 9th, 2017. During the wait for the album, many fans, including myself, expressed concern and frustration over the delayed release, and post release, I was even more confused by the initial lack of promotion for the project. SZA has explained that she didn't believe that the project had any commercial appeal and didn't believe in it as much as the average consumer would think given the quality of work. I believe that this was her perspective due to the fact that there wasn't much "help" on the album, as outside of the features and a co-writer on "Drew Barrymore", Solána wrote everything. As far as the lack of promotion, SZA expressed disappointment with TDE, claiming that they initially prevented her album from being released and weren't supporting her as an artist. However, she later clarified her comments, explaining that her frustration was not directed at the label itself, and that she and TDE resolved their issues. I don't wanna take too much of your time covering this album, this is technically about SOS, but I think it's important to go over a few things before we get to the next album.
The importance of CTRL in my opinion stems from its vulnerability. SZA being the main writer makes the album cohesive, as well as its in-house production. Solána's personal stories, quips from her grandmother and the deeply emotional subject matter came together to become a perfect soundtrack for young adult black women finding themselves during its release. The album's title is an obvious play on the word "control", as the project explores the subjects of self-empowerment/discovery, as well as personal growth and relationships in the modern age. This deeply personal album was embraced very strongly by the public, as the album currently sits with 300+ consecutive weeks on the Billboard 200 chart, the second highest amount of consecutive weeks for an R&B album, trailing only Rihanna's Anti. CTRL is also 3x platinum certified by the RIAA, and the owner of multiple platinum records, despite not having a top 20 hit, A phrase that comes to mind for an album like this is the classic intro to Drake's "Pound Cake", as it was Jimmy Smith says:
SZA became a star almost instantly with the release of CTRL, and as you can see by the longevity of the album, people were eager to hear more music from the TDE singer. In May 30th, 2018, almost a year after the hit debut, SZA tweeted that her vocal cords were permanently injured. This caused a frenzy in the music industry, as one of music's upcoming stars (she was 5x Grammy nominated for CTRL, but was snubbed 5x as well), was seemingly going to be lost forever. Luckily this didn't end up being a permanent issue, but it's an important step towards this second album for two reasons: Touring and pronunciation.
Now this isn't my opinion, but some people have said in the past that SZA's singing voice is hard to understand, or jokingly say that she sings in cursive. I understood everything she said on CTRL, but I do agree that there have been times where I;'d have to listen to things twice. The damaged vocal cords situation made me think that her singing voice was either going to be completely lost or become unrecognizable. This was not the case, but ended up being the opposite. Her voice seemed to have gotten stronger after all of the time off to heal. I'll let you listen to the live rendition of Normal Girl, my personal favorite from CTRL, performed at The Roots Picnic in 2020 to understand what I mean. (2020 was a blessing in disguise because the "live concerts" we received during quarantine time gave us amazing vocal performances from many genres purest artists.)
This rendition leads me to my second reason, pronunciation. SZA has a very distinct singing style, as the "cursive" is like her signature take of certain parts of songs or words, but I think that her voice grew through the adversity with time off as well as the critics having so much to say. It was great to see her silence critics of her talent and star power with this performance, as her words were concise and clear, while also keeping her signature singing style.
As mentioned, this performance is from 2020, which would mark three years since the release of CTRL, and the people wanted more music. Of course, the pandemic pushed back a lot of music releases, and I'm sure that SZA is included in that group, so I was much more understanding when it came to releases. The deluxe edition for CTRL released on it's fifth anniversary, and came with a few new records, my favorite being "2AM", but the people wanted something new.
The long wait would finally come to an end when we were blessed with "Hit Different", a track produced by the legendary Neptunes and featuring Ty Dolla $ign. Releasing on September 4th, it would mark her first solo release since 2017. This release caused a frenzy, as SZA had been in yet another label dispute, calling her relationship with Punch (TDE's president) hostile and making "#FreeSZA" trend on Twitter. Punch had been passive aggressive and condescending towards fans about the release of SZA & Kendrick Lamar's delayed albums for a while and this didn't help, as fans would continue to attack him online. Despite wanting to release music, those feelings of doubt were still there, as she spoke to Zane Lowe in an interview and said:
"I was crying with my mom because I haven't dropped anything in so long and I just feel like the anxiety...sometimes I'm strong enough to just drop something and then two weeks passes, and then I'm not strong anymore."
The back and forth feelings about releasing new music as well as insinuated label issues would continue to plague the release of her upcoming album over the next 2 years. But in between that time, we did get two more great singles, as well as features. At the end of the music video for Hit Different, there is a teaser for the next single, "Good Days". This trend continued with the video for "Good Days", as the single "Shirt" was teased in a short snippet as well. Her music videos seemed to be like Marvel movies in my opinion, a great film and then you have to wait because theres more to see at the end. Now with these teasers being amazing, the following release is where the issue would lie. "Good Days" was released on Christmas Day in 2020, but had a filter over SZA's vocals that wasn't present in the video teaser release. After a lot of complaints from the fans, this was eventually changed the record was incredible. For "Shirt", there was a much longer wait. This lead to more of the cycle, as Punch was being cryptic on Twitter while there was a video of an angry SZA talking about the delayed release of her album, as she wanted it to come out for the summer of 2022, though it was pushed back to December. Nonetheless, Punch held firm and we didn't receive "Shirt" until September of 2022, the final release before the album.
Between the releases of "Good Days" and "Shirt", SZA won a Grammy for her feature on Doja CAt's "Kiss Me More", and did drop one single, "I Hate U", but it wasn't supposed to be an official release. The song was originally released on SZA's (anonymous) SoundCloud exclusively on August 22, 2021, along with two other tracks, "Joni" and "Nightbird". It was later said by SZA that her astrologist encouraged her to release the songs, and called it an experiment. It was officially released as a single in December of 2021 after going viral on TikTok and fans begging for the single to be out on official platforms. After release, it broke the record for the most streamed R&B song by a female artist on Apple Music in its first week, debuted/peaked at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100, and has since been certified double platinum. While CTRL had long lasting hits that didn't chart high, it seemed that SZA's cemented stardom had lead to smash hits with the same longevity this time around.
The release of "Shirt" showed the world that the album was finally coming soon. The music video shows SZA killing off her shadow, which in my eyes showed a new era was underway. In November 2022, SZA posted a tweet that read "old sza just died in shirt music video and none of y'all talking about it" to which she wrote:
"Rebirth is necessary."
When SOS released on December 9th 2022, I was both relieved as well as nervous. I understood SZA's fears of the sophomore project, and I kind of understood TDE waiting until the end of the year for the release (though the method and interactions with fans haven't been the best). After loving CTRL for six years, this new project would be very important for the trajectory of her career and discography as a whole. When I wrote about Ari Lennox in 2021, I mentioned the importance of the sophomore album in black female R&B, as artists like Brandy, Mary J. Blige and others cemented undoubted superstardom with their second projects. Like I said about Ari, I believed that SZA was in that tier of generational R&B talent, and she delivered on my beliefs and then some.
On this new project, SZA speaks from a much more self-assured and confident place in her life. While she did say this album is still speaking in the past, it's forsake a different perspective than her debut album.
While SOS is different sonically and lyrically from CTRL, one thing remained constant: vulnerability. SZA speaks from the perspective of a true human, someone who is both confident and then stumbles while going through the struggles that life throws at you. While CTRL was about trying to control your emotions of things that you couldn't, on SOS we see that sometimes you have to sit in those negative emotions or situations to learn from them, instead of running from them or forcing things on your time. Even the cover is a play on this, as SZA sits lonely on a diving board, seemingly in her own thoughts. This photo also paid homage to an old paparazzi photo of Princess Diana. SZA said this on her Instagram story about the meaning of the album:
"It's about being overly secure and insecure all-in-one. Both can coexist"
Sonically, this is an immaculate project in my opinion. Despite having multiple genres on this album, the sequencing is done so well that it flows perfectly. This is an album that you can just press play on and let it go, no need for shuffle or skips. While her first album was mainly in house, SZA reached out across the industry for SOS, with only three artists reaching back out with their guest verses in time for the album's release. I really enjoyed SZA's hip-hop inspired records on this album, as her best one in my opinion is "Used" with Don Toliver on the hook. This album was about versatility, and the writers and producers show this. as she had production from Babyface on "Snooze", one of the albums pure R&B records, with writing from both Babyface and Leon Thomas III as well. The Neptunes' record didn't make the project, but it was interpolated on the end of "Love Language", as well as Aaliyah's classic "I Don't Wanna" record from 1999. I really enjoy when artists sample themselves, and while "Hit Different" was released too far back to make the final cut (completely understandable) it still made an impact on the project.
SZA is someone who hates being put in a box, and proved that she shouldn't be with this album, because she can make rock songs as well. In a cover story, she conveyed her love for creating black music, however, explained that it doesn't have to be just R&B. This is an important argument in music today, as black artistry started most, if not all, genres of music that are among the most popular in the world currently, but black artists are thrown into only the hip-hop and R&B categories when it comes to being recognized for their work. The songs "F2F" and "Ghost in the Machine" with Phoebe Bridgers showcase that black rock music needs to be recognized and respected by the mainstream media. As someone who doesn't listen to much rock music, I can tell you that when I do, it's been made by black women. Even a record like "Nobody Gets Me" falls into that category and is a great demonstration of SZA's vocal growth over the years.
"We started Rock 'N Roll. Why can't we just be expansive and not reductive?"
While this album does have its sleeper tracks, SOS brought something to the table that CTRL didn't have: a number one Billboard hit. "Kill Bill" became her first track to reach this milestone on April 29th, and there was a remix to the record released with a rap verse from Doja Cat as well. I enjoy both versions of the song, and the music video for the record (released on January 10th) was another film-esque video, as SZA followed a storyline similar to the song's namesake, while including other records from her album at the beginning and end of the video.
If there was anyway to follow up a very personal debut, it was this. Not only did SZA get out of her comfort zone, she brought the listener out of their comfort zone as well. Nobody knew what to expect with this album, and it ended up being perfect in every aspect. The production, the growth of her vocals, the minimal amount of features...it all came together the way it needed to. TDE pushing the album back as much as they did may have been looked at badly in the moment, but in the end, that helped lead SZA to breaking Usher’s record for his 2004 blockbuster album Confessions, the most weeks at Number 1 on the Billboard 200 record for an R&B album (SOS held the spot for ten straight weeks from it's debut, Confessions held it for nine weeks).This put her at a tie with Adele's 25, and is the first album by a woman since Taylor Swift's 1989 to chart at number one for at least nine weeks. SZA was already a star, but SOS has cemented her as a true superstar in the industry.
With an album this great, I had to see it be performed live. I was able to attend the Oakland show with my girlfriend and it was one of the best concerts I've ever experienced. With this being her first headlining tour, I knew that we'd be able to experience records from both albums, and with her having the vocal issues after her debut, this would also be her first time performing records fully healthy in a full venue. I was amazed at the setup, the quick changes and even the mood changes between songs. My favorite song performances were "Love Galore" and "Gone Girl", as the two were very interactive with the audience. The performance of "Smoking on my Ex Pack" was an entirely different experience, as it was a behind the scenes for everyone on the big screen as she rapped along to the record and came back pout to continue the show. While SZA showed how much she grew vocally at The Roots picnic in 2020, and it was fully displayed due to COVID restrictions, we finally got to see her as a performer/show-woman, and she delivered.
I believe that while it can be argued that SOS is her best album, I think both projects hold a special place in my heart. As listeners, we've sort of grown up with SZA, and over the past six years, we've gone from young adults in college to full grown adults with degrees and starting our careers. I don't think that figuring yourself out ever stops, as people grow continuously if they want to become better as time passes, and this album is an embodiment of that. In life, sometimes you have to get others involved while staying true to yourself, or in other words, send out that SOS. Thank you for sharing your truths with us over the years, Solána, I hope that this isn't the last time we hear them.
Final Grade: 96/100 (A)