Arts & Entertainment

ARTIST REVIEW: SZA’s SOS: The modern femme’s inner turmoil between apathy and empathy

SZA’s 2022 hit album discusses the intricacies of the female experience in a cold society.

With all this cold and hail, I thought I’d share an artist that is known for her warmth and always creates the most iconic back-to-back summer hits. In particular, we’ll be touching on the album that broke the largest streaming week for an R&B album in the US. That is “SOS” by SZA, the album that contained her number one hit, “Kill Bill.” 

Solána Imani Rowe – also known by her stage name SZA — is an American singer, dancer and songwriter. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but was instead raised in Maplewood, New Jersey. Through her record signing in 2011 with Top Dawg Entertainment, SZA was able to release her debut EP “See.SZA.Run.” Since then, the artist has come a long way, from earning four Grammy Award nominations, winning one of these for “Kiss Me More” alongside rapper and singer Doja Cat, receiving a Golden Globe nomination, and being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song alongside fellow musician Kendrick Lamar. SZA has become perhaps the most influential female in the R&B genre today.  

But for this article, we will be focusing on the content of her most recently released and most popular album to date, “SOS.” This is SZA’s second studio album, which directly followed up on her previous album, “CTRL.” With a whopping 23 songs, it exceeds any number fans had speculated the album would contain. For this reason, I will only be covering a few of her songs, and then giving my final thoughts.  

The first song (titled after the album itself), serves as an introduction to the rest of the album. It invites us in with some groovy, jazz-like instrumentals. SZA quickly follows up with her signature melodic rap vocals, unrestricted and making the most of her remarkable range. Though this song’s primary function is to serve as a beginning, it also serves as a catalyst for the rest of the songs in this album.  

Secondly, we have her most popular song to date: “Kill Bill.” The name itself is actually a reference to the martial arts film duology “Kill Bill: Vol. 1 & Vol. 2,” where an assassin seeks revenge against her ex, through any means necessary. This title is directly reflected on the lyrical contents of this song, which dictate the emotions of a woman who hasn’t quite gotten over her ex.  

Murder is no taboo in this discography, which came out of the left field for an R&B artist. The song circulates around SZA’s failure to cope with her current reality and refusing to accept that her ex has moved on from her. The song quite literally ends with SZA taking her ex’s life (as well as his girlfriends), as she’d “rather stay in hell than alone.”  

This song became an anthem of sorts for women across the globe, as it perfectly encapsulates a portion of what feminine rage is. Alongside its music video, which directly referenced the movies, both film buffs of the original movies and women who relate to the anger and frustrations shown throughout the song lyrics found themselves enamored by this song. It is also one of my own favorite songs that SZA has ever produced.  

American R&B singer SZA performing at REBEL on August 23, 2017 in Toronto, Canada on CTRL the Tour. Photo by Erin Cazes.

In “Seek & Destroy,” we have a head-bopping, synth-y and catchy beat that matches the tempo of SZA’s vocals. As the name entails, this song describes what it’s like for someone who self-sabotages, hurts others in the process and what goes on inside their heads, primarily in romantic relationships. It captures that logic where someone can’t help but flee out of fear of being hurt themselves, and then feeling that relief during the aftermath of their abandonment. Yet they can’t stop seeking for new companions, new lovers that they will inevitably destroy: “Now that I ruined everything, I’m so f*cking free.”  

“Low” is a certified, smoking R&B bop. The bass during the chorus is heavy, bouncing off SZA’s sensual low notes, climbing to highs and creating vibratos with subtle ease. Lyrically, the song speaks about trying not to mix business with pleasure, appearing a certain way on the outside but having an inner, hidden carnal desire. What I love about this song is the progression of the speaker simply stating that they want to keep their sexual desires lowkey, to asserting what they want to anyone who tries to criticize. Particularly, they aim at men they’ve already had sex with and are judging them for continuing to be sexually active: “I’m f*ckin’, I ain’t makin’ love no more. You’ve got a new b*tch, what the f*ck you cryin’ for? I’m movin’ selfish, callin’ all my favorite h*es. Wherever you are, whatever you need. Don’t call me.” It’s also no surprise that this continues the theme of emotional unavailability that was prominent in “Seek & Destroy.”  

“Ghost in the Machine” brings a new side to the face of this coin. This is apparent with the immediate use of string instruments in its beginning, creating a more emotional, somber tone. SZA begins with a conversational yet melodious opening: “Everything disgusting, conversation is so boring. Heard about what? I hate her, I don’t agree, I did it first. I give a f*ck, I just wanna f*ck, eat, sleep, love, happy. Can you make me happy? Can you keep me happy?”. 

This song presents a theme of existentialism, a struggle to feel empathy for other human beings when you are already mentally and emotionally exhausted. SZA shows her distaste for the hypocrisy seen in popular media and religious organizations by stating how: “Everybody wanna be beautiful, scared of the unusual. Scared of giving mutual respect, all that you hate. You reflect all the godlike. I hate everybody, I hate everyone.” We are given a deeper look into the mind of someone who is disconnected from their emotions, refuses to engage with others in meaningful ways and often find themselves hurting others for running away. This song answers why they do what they do, but doesn’t defend it.  

Ending this on a positive note, “Good Days” is a beautiful song about “getting air” and “stepping out.” Similar to “Ghost in the Machine,” where we are greeted by string instruments, this song is primarily encompassed by them, truly showing the level of vulnerability SZA is exhibiting. Despite the overwhelming intrusive thoughts and “trying to make sense of loose change,” she tries to believe in good days to come. There is a back and forth similar to how the train of thoughts tends to work. Starting with simply stepping outside and taking a breath of fresh air, the past creeps up, giving them a heaviness that overwhelms them. Instead of dwelling, SZA responds with a “Can you get the heck out? Got me bummed out.” She successfully asserts that she’s been trying to empty her mind of her burdens, and they have no space in her mind anymore.  

Another pull back into her mind, we hear her doubt herself: “I worry that I wasted the best of me on you baby.” But with a commanding and almost cathartic “You don’t care!” she reminds herself that she is working hard on herself. I will leave all of you with the chorus, as I feel it explains itself perfectly and is absolutely gorgeous to behold: “Not trynna be a nuisance, it’s just urgent. Tryna make sense of loose change. Got me a war in my mind. Gotta let go of weight, can’t keep what’s holding me choose to watch while the world breaks up and falls on me. All the while, I’ll await my armored fate with a smile. Still wanna try, still believe in good days. A good day living in my mind.” 

In this author’s humble opinion, “Good Days” is probably SZA’s best work. It brought forth another wave of women who chose to introspect and leave the past behind, healing from trauma and wounds from the past and choosing to make a better future for themselves and no one else. This duality of apathy and empathy, violence and healing, lust and love, is what makes the entirety of SOS such an amazing album. It’s not just about the beat, the vibes or making something that people can dance to at a club. It has layers to it, and I appreciate that.  

SOS is currently out on all music streaming platforms.