Patience is a virtue when it comes to being a SZA fan: the R&B singer-songwriter has dragged out the release of the follow-up to her universally acclaimed debut album Ctrl for five years, practically a lifetime in pop music. Throughout that time, SZA has fought bitterly with her label for artistic control, battled depression and anxiety following her grandmother’s death, and scored a top three Billboard hit and Grammy with Doja Cat’s “Kiss Me More.” All of these disparate factors raised the intrigue and expectations surrounding her new album to a roiling fever pitch.
SZA teased the album all the way back in 2017 in TIME, saying: “I’m so tired of talking about myself. And I think that music now is a place where I can speak and then not speak. So I think on my next album I’ll just say a lot more.”
The album rollout, however, was long. The first glimmer of new music came with September 2020’s “Hit Different” featuring Ty Dolla $ign and the Neptunes. She later released “Good Days” in December 2020, then “I Hate U” a year later in 2021, and lastly, “Shirt” in October 2022.
But the wait is finally over: on Friday, SZA released her sophomore album, SOS. Two TIME culture writers—Andrew R. Chow and Moises Mendez—break down the album, compare it to Ctrl, and discuss its surprising guest features and whether it was all worth the wait.
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How is SOS different from Ctrl?
Andrew R: Chow: Let’s get this out of the way: Anyone who expects Ctrl Part 2 will be disappointed. Ctrl was a tightly-wound, thematically and sonically cohesive mission statement. It was exactly this specificity that made the album resonate so deeply with many fans.
Moises Mendez II: On Ctrl, SZA had a clear path and rarely strayed from it. She made some amazing R&B tracks and the occasional trap song with help from Travis Scott. But on Ctrl, she didn’t possess the bravado she does on SOS. She explained the meaning of Ctrl in an interview with Genius. “I have no control. There is no such thing as control. I’m chasing control. I’m craving control. I’m losing control. It’s the culmination of all these things, of this word, of this concept that’s just run my life for so long.” This is evident throughout the album: on a song like “Normal Girl,” where she grapples with being perceived as outside the norm, or “Go Gina,” where she says that picking up a penny with press-on nails (a notoriously hard thing to do) is easier than being with a man. Long hiatuses from music rarely pay off, but SZA was able to take all the best parts of Ctrl and expand them on her new album.
ARC: SOS is a more expansive album than Ctrl in several senses. First, it sprawls across 23 songs and 70 minutes. It’s much more diverse in its sonic palette: while Ctrl mostly leaned on muted electric guitars and dreamy synthesizers, SOS pulls from trap, pop-punk, boom-bap, indie power ballads, and chipmunked soul samples.
It’s not uncommon for artists to expand their artistic visions on sophomore albums. Often, this ambition can backfire, with artists succumbing to major label expectations and forgetting what made them successful in the first place. The SOS production credits are filled with boldface names—Pharrell, Benny Blanco, Jeff Bhasker (a Kanye West and Harry Styles collaborator) —that lend prestige but risk clouding SZA’s vision.
But while SOS is certainly less focused than Ctrl, it shows the breadth of SZA’s enormous talent. SZA deploys some vicious rap flows on the record—she practically sounds like a member of Griselda on “Smoking on My Ex Pack”—while also belting her heart out. It’s clear she’s been listening widely to different types of music as part of her creative process—she interpolates Dreamgirls and a recent refrain by frequent collaborator Kendrick Lamar, while “Nobody Gets Me” seems to pay homage to Natalie Imbruglia. And it almost all works. In its heft and variety, the album feels—at the risk of mentioning Kanye—like SZA’s Donda, if that makes any sense.
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What is SOS about?
MM: I interpreted SOS as SZA coming to the realization that she is scared of herself and sending out a distress signal to anyone who will listen. If the album is working in tandem with Ctrl, then this sees her losing that sense of control and going through a roller coaster of emotions. On the one hand, she’s scared of what she might do, like killing her ex and his new girlfriend (not literally, but she thinks about it) or just screaming about not knowing what to do without her ex’s presence in her life on “F2F.” SZA sings, “Nobody gets me like you/ How am I supposed to let you go?/ Only like myself when I’m with you.”
When the pendulum swings the other way to her confident side, she’s trying to convince herself that she doesn’t need her ex. “Conceited” shows off her braggadocious swagger as she says, “I got no reason to depend on you.” In the end, SZA is trying to push past the negativity, leaving the things that don’t serve her. But for now, she finds herself in limbo, hence feeling like she’s in the middle of the ocean.
ARC: SZA seems to revel when on the precipice, with many songs on the album playing out like aural versions of the “This is Fine” meme. Over and over, she sings about falling headlong into relationships that turn into unhealthy codependency; of love that turns to hatred and back again. “In the dark right now/ Feeling lost, but I like it,” she sings on “Shirt.”
While it’s unclear who she’s sending a distress signal to exactly, most of the songs here are written in the second person, with a hyper-specific target. Several times, she conveys the message that being with someone else, no matter how torturous the relationship, is better than being alone. On “Ghost in the Machine,” she asks directly: “Can you make me happy? Can you keep me happy?”
What are the album’s best songs?
MM: What works best for me on the album are the risks that pay off. She has stepped outside of her usual R&B mode and just tried everything. I still love “Good Days.” Even though we’ve had two years to sit with it, that melody and the ethereal vibes on the song are just to die for. I really enjoyed the “Hit Different” Easter egg at the end of “Love Language.” “Kill Bill,” “Conceited,” “Gone Girl,” “Blind,” and “Too Late,” are all songs that I find myself going back to. But the one I can listen to over and over is “Snooze.” It’s a gorgeously dreamy song about wanting to be present for every moment with the person you love.
When I was listening to the album all the way through for the first time, I immediately messaged you when I heard “F2F” because I quite literally couldn’t believe my ears. SZA’s dreamy vocals paired with the blaring electric guitars blew my mind.
ARC: The most obvious radio hit to me is “Notice Me,” a bit of pop confection with “Trap Queen” energy that contains both a big hook and some prime examples of SZA’s counterintuitive phrasing choices. When she jumps an octave to hit “buzzin’ through tonight with you,” that note scratches a very specific itch in my brain.
But the songs that get me the most excited are the ones that I least expected from SZA given her prior aesthetic choices. I didn’t know she had the gears to hit both strip club rager (“Low”) or angsty suburban teen (“F2F”). And in doing so, she practically beat both Travis Scott and Olivia Rodrigo at their own games.
Who has the best feature on the album?
ARC: While I very much enjoy the stylings of Don Toliver—essentially the best version of a rap-sung A.I.—and Travis Scott—who makes an excellent hypeman on “Low” and a passable romantic foil on “Open Arms”—it’s got to be Phoebe Bridgers. I couldn’t be more psyched for this collaboration, as it has often felt like the two of them are anxious, horny Spider-Men pointing at each other from across the genre-verse.
Bridgers’ “You said all of my friends are on my payroll/ You’re not wrong, you’re an asshole” is another perfect couplet to add to a career already full of them. And their thematic mindmeld ensures that it doesn’t feel like Bridgers is awkwardly crossing over into R&B, but rather that they both sit at a perfect intersection of their fluid musical styles.
MM: Would it be terrible to say I wasn’t particularly excited about any of these features? None of them blew me out of the water and I loved just hearing SZA’s voice alone. Travis is a fine addition to “Open Arms” but works better on “Low,” and Don Toliver is lukewarm on the chorus of “Used.” I respect Phoebe Bridgers and think she’s a great artist, she just isn’t someone I listen to enough to have anticipated as greatly.
What are the album’s best lyrics?
“Now that I’ve ruined everything, I’m so f-ckin’ free” (“Seek & Destroy”)
“I’d rather be in hell than alone” (“Kill Bill”)
“I ain’t no Julia Stiles, this ain’t Last Dance” (“Kill Bill”)
“I don’t want righteousness/ I hurt too much, I lost too much, I lust too much” (“Blind”)
“I been burnin’ bridges, I’ll do it all over again/ Cause I’m betting on me” (“Conceited”)
So was it worth the wait?
ARC: Yes, absolutely. While there is some filler on here, there’s genuine energy and creative excitement coursing through nearly every song. I’m going to go ahead and give the flaming hot take that it’s better than Ctrl.
MM: I would say yes, but just with an ounce less of enthusiasm because I think the album suffers from oversaturation. It’s hard to do a 23-song album perfectly with the promise of an even longer deluxe version of the album. But as someone who is a fan of SZA’s music and voice, I can confidently say that those who were hungry for a new album will be satiated.