Continuing to succeed in her sonic expressions with a diverse palette of sounds, SZA defines how we receive the music by the album title. Layered with emotional and thematic elements, CTRL saw SZA commanding the stage and giving us a concise and consistent range of work that doesn’t make you overthink to understand who she is presenting. She has control. It’s the opposite of the follow-up SOS; it takes you through various soundscapes, some that we haven’t heard from her prior. It’s SZA exploding with all these ideas built through the last four years and offers a reflection of an artist who’s yearning to get heard. It’s like she is on an island with creators, just making music day after day, but nothing is getting released, so she issues her own mental SOS so that she can let it out and we can further understand her artistry. There is crisp sequencing, allowing the album to hurdle through missteps deriving featured artists or simplistic percussion a few times; the minor hindrances don’t over-shroud the lot of fantastic music SZA gives us.
Subtleness may be what SOS lacks, but it isn’t driving the strengths, meaning it doesn’t break the album. SZA keeps her sleeves bare with emotion as she laments and vents about her world, which correlates with sheer relevancy, giving SOS a grander platform for musical resonance. From the beginning, you are not getting hints; you get directness without a curtain failsafe to shield her when she makes a listener uncomfortable, if that. After the title track, we get a stream of consciousness that envelops us through these auspicious, musically metaphorical dualities that boast her person in reflection with the lyrics she delivers. “Kill Bill” sees SZA using the film Kill Bill as a means to create these allusions to situations that have done her wrong; she likens herself to Beatrice Kiddo leading down her path of destruction, which may ultimately see her having to confront her ex’s new girlfriends. Similarly, there’s “Gone Girl,” a starry R&B Ballad that gives us an inside look at the mind of SZA as she contemplates leaving her lover and emphasizing her ghosting by using allusions to the novel and film of the same name.
SZA’s stream of consciousness continues to add weight to her shoulders, buoying a robust response from the listener. One of which keeps you engaged through her songwriting, which outshines the production more consistently than not. Using the title SOS as this allegorical meaning toward delivering an explosion of sounds adds credence to the quantity and varying styles on the album, but more so the latter. Though not inherently bloated, this fresh consistency blooms through all but two tracks, even if there are minor sidesteps. “Far” is one of three tracks that allow itself to feel distant from the pack on a sonic level as opposed to its lyrical textures, which adds to the sentiments getting delivered on SOS. That strong flow of SOS gets slightly drowned by two of the features, which aren’t as complementary, either in style or with the quality of their verse, leaving the songs emptier. Don Tolliver and Travis Scott are the featured artists I talk about; they add little to the 23-track macrocosm of riotous emotions within her delivery, becoming more of an afterthought that could have gotten removed for crisper consistency.
Fortunately, these two hindrances don’t take away from the explosive work SZA gives us, especially with its song transitions. Continuing to explore contextual verbal duality, SZA begins a wave of beauty with “Gone Girl,” shifting into SZA delivering a rap verse on “Smoking On My Ex Pack,” then turning into this vibrant dream-pop collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers and rising further on the monstrous punk track “F2F.” “F2F” takes you back to the early 00s, when burgeoning female punk artists let their angst get heard effervescently. You get taken aback instantly, mainly because it’s something different, and its flows. Though predominantly R&B, some tracks come to you never feel perturbed due to an understanding of SZA’s concept that allows them to come to you freely.
SZA’s vocals naturally assimilate to each style she exhumes, whether it’s punk rock, soft singer-songwriter pop like on “Blind” and “Conceited,” or grand R&B powerhouses like “Notice Me,” “Shirt,” or the bravado of “Low,” with the thematic potency of songs akin to “Irreplaceable.” It shows an exuberant amount of confidence as she commands who she is, especially in her day-to-day life. Unfortunately, some of these tracks don’t get overly creative with the drum patterns, leaving many songs to rely on their building blocks of sounds and vocals to keep you engaged. SZA can take anything she’s given by the horns and steer it toward greatness, and it’s been evident pre-CTRL. “Good Days” is one of a few examples that makes you realize percussion is second nature to the synths, the strings, and an array of melodies that offer a spacious atmosphere for you to get lost in and contemplate. It may be a potential problem that can come from having a deep platoon of producers helping you deliver consistency on a canvas, some of which may add more than needed, like the slim sonic redundancy of “Far,” but SZA beautifully pieces it together.
SOS is a fantastic collection of songs that delivers upon its concept with emotional splendor; you’re never cashing out as you want to keep this album on repeat. I was one of those to feel that I couldn’t stop leaving it on loop, as the melancholy, sometimes minimalist production, gives us an open space to dissect SZA’s lyricism. Definitely, worth holding out for your lists to give it a chance to break through, and it will, like it did with me.