In the chaos of 2023, music was a place of escape or solace. SOS, SZA’s second album, released just over a year ago on 9 December, was undoubtedly one of the most important albums of the year, and one that we have revisited again and again this year. SOS is empowered to finally have a nice rage and only later deal with the consequences: SZA dissects the subject of love and exes to our guts in a way that only she can.
Solana Imani Rowe was born on November 8, 1989 in St. Louis, Missouri, but grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey. Her father was an executive producer for CNN, while her mother worked for AT&T. She was raised Muslim and continues to follow Islam. She was subjected to numerous bullying incidents as a schoolgirl in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, which prompted her to stop wearing the hijab. After graduating from high school in 2008, Rowe later attended three different colleges, finally settling on Delaware State University, where she studied marine biology. She ended up dropping out in her last semester, choosing instead to work a variety of jobs. Rowe developed her stage name from Supreme Alphabet, influenced by Wu-Tang Clan rapper RZA. The last two letters of her name are Zig-Zag and Allah, while the first letter S stands for saviour.
SZA released her debut studio album Ctrl in 2017, which turned out to be a superb R&B record exploring themes of heartbreak and self-discovery. Critics and audiences widely acclaimed her vocal delivery, her already eclectic musical style, and the power of her emotional impact. Pushing the boundaries of the R&B genre, the album brought SZA mainstream fame and established her status in contemporary music. The album received four Grammy Award nominations (she herself was nominated for Best New Artist) and became the second longest-running R&B album by a female artist on the Billboard 200 chart. The following year, SZA was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Original Song category for her duet with Kendrick Lamar, “All the Stars”, which was the soundtrack to the movie Black Panther. But she also had another successful contribution: she joined Doja Cat for their song “Kiss Me More”, which eventually won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.
SZA cites Ella Fitzgerald and Lauryn Hill as her biggest influences, but also expresses admiration for Ashanti, whom she repeatedly cites as one of her main inspirations and whom she has loved since childhood. Other influences include the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Common, Björk, Jamiroquai, and of course “a lot of Wu, Nas, Mos Def, Hov”.
SOS also mixes a lot of styles and moods, from basic modern and more classic R&B to live pop, with deep, depressive lyrics in the hard-edged “Kill Bill” thrown in for good measure, which certainly doesn’t hold back for a moment and remains honest throughout. What makes the album cohesive though is SZA’s voice itself, who doesn’t want to pretend to be someone else, and somehow all 23 (!) songs are very, very light and sweat-free. From the opening title track to the Björk-tinged Forgiveless, backed by Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s rap, we are treated to an extremely eventful journey, full of hits throughout. SOS debuted at number one in the US with 318,000 copies sold and topped the HOT200 chart for ten consecutive weeks, breaking several records. The album was named one of the best albums of the year by almost every major critic. As easy as it is musically, it’s as difficult in terms of content, but it’s definitely worth going on this journey of self-discovery with SZA, because SOS is still a liberating experience all in all. And we only quietly add that it would be nice not to have to wait another 5 years for a new album…