Answering SZA’s SOS

Roslyn Hernández

SZA’s long-awaited SOS continues to set music records weeks after its release. The artist’s second studio album, SOS retains SZA’s brutal honesty about her romantic relationships, while delving deeply into the raw self-reflection of heartbreak.

SOS is not just a desperate cry for help, however; it is a lavish and leisurely dive into SZA’s disheartened observations and desperate confessions. Moodiness oozes from this album. The cover portrays SZA sitting alone at the edge of a diving board, wistfully looking at the horizon. She looks small and isolated but comfortably perched amongst the vastness of dark-blue water. The cover is a preamble—a signal of SZA’s eagerness to dive into the depths and fullness of her complicated and sometimes contradictory feelings.

SZA doesn’t simply employ complicated feelings through her lyrics; she also soaks the listeners in a complexity of sound. She breaks free from hit music formulas, disorienting and holding the listener captive in the confessional, stream-of-consciousness, and meandering melodies of her verses. She doesn’t spend time on hooks and uses choruses sparingly. Instead, she creates an ambiance listeners can absorb. SOS is an atmospheric album that explores the darkness of rejection and ruminates on memories, loneliness, anger, abandonment, grief, the loss of deep connection, emptiness, and even self-hatred.

The opening track of the album, also titled “SOS,” opens with the universally known Morse code signal for distress and the sound of SZA diving into the deep and vast ocean of her feelings and reflections. She jumps right in, letting us know she has plenty of tea on her exes and she’s going to spill it. But not without letting us know her tears were also spilled: “And I cried, and cried / Said what’s on my mind/ Ooh, ooh-whoa, I cried.”

But who is SZA crying for? Who is she hoping will answer her signal of distress?

Is she reeling because of her exes? Yes. In the chart-topping track “Kill Bill,” SZA grieves the loss of the relationship and any hope of getting back together: “I get the sense that it’s a lost cause / I get the sense that you might really love her.” The desperation and contradiction of this situation is highlighted with the dark humor of another lyric: “I might kill my ex / I still love him though / Rather be in jail than alone.” This sentiment of clinging is echoed in “Nobody Gets Me”: “I don’t want to see you with anyone but me / Nobody gets me like you.” This track goes as far as to say, “If I’m real, I deserve less / If I was you, I wouldn’t take me back.” SZA laments the loss of the relationship and of being known. She even loses some sense of identity: “Only like myself when I’m with you.”

Who is SZA crying for? Who is she hoping will answer her signal of distress?

And yet, SZA’s actual tragedy might not be caused by her exes. Her tragedy seems to be that she’s lost herself.

In “Blind” she confesses, “It’s so embarrassing / All of the things I need living inside of me / I can’t see it / It’s so embarrassing / All of the love I seek living inside of me.” She might not make it to self-love in SOS, but in “Far,” SZA has realized that her ex won’t answer her emotional distress call. She is ready to both face and heal herself. She’s “Done being used, done playing stupid.” She’s done letting her ex define her. In “Open Arms” she finally lets him go and sets herself free, taking her power back. “I gotta let you go, I must / You’re the only one that’s holding me down / (‘Cause I’m the one that’s holding me down).”

SZA’s lament in SOS exemplifies the human condition. Yearning to be known and loved is part of what makes us human. We want to be known, to feel understood, to feel like someone “gets us.” While we can be known by a partner or community, Psalm 139 reminds us that God’s knowing of us not only transcends time and space, but offers comfort, guidance, and protection that will never falter. “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me,” the psalmist writes. “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” When we are aware of being cherished this way, we can feel confident in our God-given identity.

While being loved by others is a natural yearning—one that God intentionally knit into the core of our being—we don’t have to place all the weight of that on our loved ones. We can be confident in being known and loved in an even greater way, one described by the Apostle Paul. In Romans 8 he reminds us that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

With SZA’s SOS in mind, we might add that not even a messy search for love—or the pain, anger, and self-hate that can result—will separate us from God's love. God’s love is always reaching for us, from deep inside us, waiting for us to send that distress signal. Indeed, God has already answered the call.

Topics: Music