After five long years of keeping rabid fans at bay, SZA (Solana Imani Rowe) has released her 23 track sophomore album “SOS.” While “SOS” has its catchy R&B successes, it lacks the genre-bending edge that made her debut so successful, and what set her apart as an artist. The album is a solid effort, but overall lacks sonic variation, feels thrown together, and sounds unfocused.
“SOS” pivots from the experimental R&B music SZA has become known for and opts for a more mainstream take on contemporary R&B and Hip-Hop. After independently releasing several mixtapes, SZA made her major label debut with her album “Ctrl” in 2017. What made it a defining album of the 2010’s was not only its alternative take on the genre, but its detailing of growing pains, confusion, and eventual personal closure. When following up such an acclaimed debut, sophomore albums often shine or crack under the pressure. In SZA’s case, “SOS” lands somewhere in the middle.
Much of the strongest material on “SOS” is packed into the first half of the album and is reminiscent of the fretful yet composed delivery so many have come to appreciate from the artist. After opening with the assertive title track, “Kill Bill” follows with a breezy instrumental over which SZA formulates plans to kill her ex. Not only is it a key standout on the record, but it perfectly represents the essence of SZA’s disposition when it comes to relationships–petty, dramatic, and a little self-deprecating. She continues on, gliding effortlessly through upbeat hip-hop tinged numbers (“Low”), stripped down guitar ballads (“Blind”), and laid-back R&B melodies (“Snooze,” “Love Language,” “Gone Girl”).
The momentum begins to slow as SZA reaches the mid-point. She delivers overly simplistic attempts at bouncy pop-leaning songs that sound almost too alike to differentiate (“Notice Me” and “Conceited”), and tacks on an upbeat but unnecessary rap interlude (“Smoking on my Ex Pack”). “Ghost in the Machine (ft. Phoebe Bridgers)” does its best at bringing two very different artists into a natural collaboration, but falls somewhere in between natural and contrived. Both of the artist’s voices work surprisingly well together, but the song doesn’t leave as big of an impression as it should for a collaboration of this magnitude.
Solid efforts are littered throughout the second half alongside filler tracks. “F2F” wakes listeners up with a refreshing acoustic arrangement that ramps up to an electric guitar and drum filled chorus. SZA ventures into new territory as she manages to pull off a sincere Taylor Swift-style guitar ballad (“Nobody Gets Me”). Other standouts include “Far,” “Shirt,” and “Open Arms,” which all deliver blunt confessions of loneliness that easily resonate. On “Special,” SZA becomes too literal in an attempt to achieve relatability, and instead delivers an over-simplified redo of 2017’s “Normal Girl.” “I Hate U” and “Good Days” (both previously released as singles) are tacked on just to give fans a weak sense of familiarity, but rather appear scatter-brained and stalls the album to a tiring chug. The album closes with “Forgiveless (ft. Ol’ Dirty Bastard)” which showcases a more energized SZA, but is delivered too late to make up for the amount of filler that precedes.
Overall, the mystique and relatability SZA once possessed seems to have been weakened by the lack of ingenuity. “SOS” migrates its way into the mainstream that she so notably didn’t conform to, and leaves behind the sonic choices that made people fall in love with her. She continues to navigate exes and relationships, but most of it falls surface level this time around.