What Gives SZA Her Edge

The singer’s highly anticipated new album, SOS, is a reminder of how fun fatalism can be.

SZA sitting and looking at the ocean
RCA Records

Happy holidays—the final great pop album of the year is all about loathing and misery! “Everything disgusting, conversation is so boring,” SZA sings on her long-awaited second album. She later adds, “I hate everybody, I hate everyone.”

SZA’s music is often described as R&B, a style in which anger and sadness tend to flow from heartbreak. But the 33-year-old star doesn’t seem comfortable admitting she has a heart at all. On SOS, she compares herself to a robot, a murderer, and the stoically suffering Job of the Old Testament. She has also, in public statements, rejected the genre label R&B as being inapt for her art. Indeed, she sings in cadences that tend to slash against, rather than with, the rhythm. Her blues are the nihilistic kind, expressing resignation at the pointlessness of existence. Writerly and raggedly stitched, SOS is a reminder of how fun fatalism can be.

The five long years that have elapsed since her acclaimed debut, Ctrl, have made it easy to forget how unusual an artist SZA is. Filled with blunt stories of lust and betrayal rendered in twisty-turny yet tightly constructed songs, that album earned her an intense fandom. But what really turned her into a major celebrity were hit collaborations, including with Kendrick Lamar on the triumphant Black Panther cut “All the Stars” (2018) and with Doja Cat on the fluffy smash “Kiss Me More” (2021). The casual listener might think she’s just another singer of pretty choruses on the radio.

SOS reframes the picture: SZA is a radical. Her innovation starts with her husky squawk of a voice, which sometimes emits notes of bell-clear beauty. More often, though, SZA stretches and scuffs up words, sharpening their edges and reveling in complex, chewy middles. Mimicking everyday conversation, her melodies take the long way to where they’re going and hide catchiness in unexpected corners. Little inflections—her pronunciation of candid as cayn-did—have been running through my head since SOS dropped on Friday.

The album’s first song (and title track) throws listeners directly into the poisonous fog of SZA’s inner life. Built off a distorted gospel sample and featuring her shit-talking through a hail of reverb, the opener is more underground rap than pop. Next, “Kill Bill” pairs a sickly sweet melody with SZA’s lyrical fantasy of offing her ex (the final line: “Rather be in hell than alone”). The parade of styles continues with sexy trap-pop, pensive acoustic rock, and one burst of pop punk (“F2F”). Yet despite the musical diversity of the 23 songs, each production has basically the same tone: a blue-gray haze. Bright hooks and energizing beats flicker like lanterns in mist.

No one SZA sings about ends up looking great. Her rivals are wannabes: “You don’t think for yoursеlf and that’s none of my business.” Her lovers are exploitative, cheating, and violent crap bags. But she applies her most withering descriptions to herself, so as to explain why she keeps hanging out with the aforementioned crap bags: “I hate me enough for the two of us.” Whenever she finds genuine connection, she detonates it. On the great ballad “Nobody Gets Me,” guitars of Oasis-like warmth are paired with verses of Leonard Cohen–like coldness: “If I’m real, I deserve less / If I was you, I wouldn’t take me back.”

Hope does exist in this loveless place, though. The beautiful single “Good Days” shimmers with dreams of serenity, and the bopping highlight “Too Late” radiates giddy desire (albeit conveyed in negative terms: “Is it bad that I want more?”). SZA’s general pattern of isolation interrupted by toxic hookups suggests a deeper wish: for evidence that people aren’t all as dull and predictable as they so often seem. “You remind me I’m imperfect and it sucks to admit,” she sings at one point. “Nobody put that purpose in me like you do.” Backhanded though that compliment sounds, listeners jolted by SZA’s uncompromising vision might pay her a similar one.