In a SZA song, the catharsis is in the word count. Her music stands proudly in the conjoined traditions of rap and R&B, allowing her to fill every verse and hook with a surplus of melodized syllables — which might be necessary considering how much she has weighing on her heart.
It’s been five long years since the St. Louis-born singer dropped her multiplatinum debut, “Ctrl,” and her emotive new follow-up album, “SOS,” feels both broader and fuller by design. On one especially prolix ballad, “Blind,” she lets her lyrics fly fast and furious, only half-apologizing for being “raunchy like Bob Saget” before outlining how toxic romances erode self-worth. “It’s so embarrassing,” she sings during the refrain, slowing down to linger on the feeling, but just barely.
Would this degree of oversharing even be possible if she weren’t standing at the intersection of singing and rapping? And was it ever an intersection in the first place? For years, the widespread success of SZA’s many peers (Drake, Doja Cat, Frank Ocean, more) and forebears (Lauryn Hill, Nelly, Missy Elliott, even more) has asked us to ponder the difference between singers who rap and rappers who sing — a tidy little binary that’s proved to be largely, if not entirely, superficial. The human voice is a powerful thing. It bends musical traditions. Over time, those bent traditions might even form new ones.
If there is anything worth noticing about SZA’s rap-singing/sing-rapping, it might be that instead of relying on melisma — a tactic you hear most often in R&B whenever a single syllable gets taken for a ride across various notes — she prefers to let her words pile up, obeying their contours, coloring them in with whichever pitches and timbres the song demands.
Which is all to say that SZA isn’t hybridizing two separate styles so much as maximizing their cumulative expressive potential — something you can hear best on “SOS” during “Used,” where she tries to quantify her grief through intricate internal rhymes. “My sanity’s at a 6.7,” she declares, chasing a melody up and down the length of her voice. “Handing out poinsettias to my dead homies’ mothers, praying they feel better.”
She sounds every bit as expert on “Seek and Destroy,” hoping to wipe her slate clean when she sings, “Now that I’ve ruined everything, I’m so f---ing free.” Don’t miss how the first four words in that phrase arc downward, as if she’s dumping her baggage out the window and watching it go splat on the sidewalk.
Yet for all her dazzling wordiness, there is a sluggish midtempo feel that permeates this album’s 23-song track list. Could it be a purposeful evocation of the emotional fatigue that SZA so often sings about? That might explain why the cuts on “SOS” that feel the slowest feel the best, especially “Good Days,” a song with a humid, sumptuous beat over which SZA discourages herself — and her generation — from “chasing fountains of youth,” focusing instead on living “in the present, now.” Words to live by.