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The Earliest Bird: Top New Recorded Release 12-9-22 – 12-15-22, SZA’s “SOS” Reviewed

In 2017, SZA dropped Cntrl, her debut album and a masterpiece of teen-y angst from a 20 something where she spent the album pining and not pining in her search of love. The following year I saw SZA on the Top Dawg entertainment: The Championship Tour in 2018, the indie hip hop label that (used to be?) dawg topped Kendrick Lamar’s, and all comers at Madison Square Garden (here). At the time I wrote: “It took last night to make me a fan of a woman I should have noted last year at the latest, but man am I a fan now. Starting in a boxing ring (part of the championship concept), she rested legs spread akimbo in a corner till “Supermodel” began to thunder through the speakers and, with a live guitarist (her member of the band foil), she sang it to a standstill, leaning on the ropes and testing the limits of her voice, from a Erykah Badu like low to a dog whistle falsetto and she ran the scales with absolute self assurance. The entire ten song strong set was culled entirely from CTRL, her 2017 breakthrough that I really, really should have noticed. The set was a fun, joyous homecoming for the Maplewood, New Jersey native. SZA dealt with her vocal problems early, and the second on the bill to Kendrick Lamar singer couldn’t find a way to not perform: this was a triumph for SZA some six years after she started…..”

SZA in 2018

Between 2018 and 2022, SZA released a clutch of singles, some on the new album, and all of which are better in context. It takes a little while to hear SZA. But over an entire album, her third album, the latest SOS is a triumphant return. Over an hour of state of the art hip hop winking at indie rock, pop punk, Canadian vibe r&b, and more. Whether it be ending with the Ol’ Dirty Bastard sample, promising a return to a “Love Galore” with Travis Scott on “Open Arms”, one of the few decent Phoebe Bridgers features ever on “Ghost In The Machine”, and more: a relentless level of excellence that brings SZA all the way back to the top of the hip hop family tree. So much of this stuff is breathtaking, “F2F” has the catechism of the album and the perfect SZA line: “I fuck ’em because I miss you”: written with Lizzo, it is one of the best slices of pop punk available (it is almost “Drew Barrymore” level), like the album itself it is crafted to within an inch of its life but it works all the way.

What SZA doesn’t do is high toxic politics like NoName, she isn’t the tops of go to hip hop singer like H.E.R., her lyrics are clever but straightforward sex angst and the sound is a genre mover which never stop sounding like itself. There is a sense of statement here but not lyrically, despite her consistent cleverness with words there is a world that she inhabits and doesn’t much leave there. If you have ever read Colson Whiteheads “Sag Harbor” you might have a feel for middle class blackness. It isn’t Jim Crow but reading RJ Smith’s Chuck Berry biography he reminds us that at the turn of the 19th into 20th century there were people in the south, in Berry’s ol’ saint lou, who never met a white man in their life, everything was run by people of color (businesses owned by white people of course, but that’s for another post). But rap, hip hop, is exotic, random murders meets rhymin’ and stealin’ in the projects. However, that is not the place SZA lives in, she lives in the same place Colson Whitehead lives, a world of black ordinariness life as lived: SZA went from college girl to graduate and into the straightforward middle class. Her extraordinariness is that except for musically (the woman may one day be considered genius level) she personifies what one hopes and prays for the black community as a whole, normality: the woman staring out to the ocean on the cover harkens to SZA’s road not taken as a marine biologist and not as a chemist…

SOS immediately enters the top albums of the year, it repays close listening with a sense of American culture in 2022 in a counter-reality where the horrors of the GOP can be backtracked and police brutality is on the back burner as mainstream black people prove their normality. SZA’s S SOS is the state of middle of the road black Americans and despite all you might believe the state is very good if a little heartbroken

Grade: A

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