It’s 11:30 pm on Thursday, December 8th. New SZA just dropped and the internet is buzzing. I’ve waited all week for this day, watching the calendar carefully as I approach the album drop. 

Now that it’s finally here, I’ve curated the absolute perfect vibe for a solo listening party. The candles are on, the incense is lit, my massive headphones are on my ears, and the rest of the world doesn’t exist. It’s been five years since SZA spoke to my heart like she did in her debut studio album Ctrl and I’m ready for more soul food. 

Before I listen, I take an intentional read through the album description. It says that while Ctrl became the “soundtrack for so many people in their twenties”, SOS provides “moments of clarity and tenderness” that I’m sure are going to be as monumental as Ctrl. And Ctrl was monumental— it gave me language to understand myself and the way that I moved through romantic relationships. I was hoping that SOS would do the same. 

The description sounded like my 2022 in a nutshell. Some keywords that stuck out for me: self-love, acceptance, flow of emotions, strength, deep regret, sadness, discomfort, healing,  trials, and tribulations. Yet, the words that resonated the most with me from the album description were “peace with where she’s at in her life”. 

With all of this in mind, I was ready. I started. I played the album tracks in the same order SZA had laid them out. It’s always how I listen to an album for the first time because it always reads like a story. Immediately, I fall in love. 

It started with the title track “SOS” and as soon as SZA said, “I know you been more than lost without me”, I felt my shoulders relax and I let out a deep sigh. She was right, and she was  finally here. As the tracks played on, all the puzzle pieces of my love life started to float in front of me and it’s SZA who was summoning them into place. 

It was “Blind” that made me cry first. She writes, 

“It’s so embarrassing
All of the love I see
Living inside of me
I can’t see it
I’m blind”

The next time she made me cry was during “Special”. She says, 

“I used to be special
But you made me hate me
Regret that I changed me
I hate that you made me just like you”

Both these songs had me reaching for my journal and rummaging through frantically to find all the times I couldn’t see all of the love living inside of me. They had me flipping through the pages to find all the times I, too, changed me. 

All year, I chronicled my deep lessons in love. I wrote about the heartbreaks, the times I didn’t feel good enough, and how I often felt like a pit stop for broken lovers. I wrote about how I felt manipulated by non-committers and let down by seemingly ideal suitors, but most of all, I wrote about how I knew all of this and entertained it anyway. 

SZA’s SOS sounds about the same to me. She says, “I guess I’m used to being used like this” and it makes my skin crawl. I’m used to it, too. 

It’s not that I thought that I was alone in these lessons. I knew that many others like me were probably making the same mistakes. I had an understanding that love hadn’t been tough for me alone. It was when I heard SZA speak to the many experiences that I, too, had written about, that I truly felt less alone. 

SZA’s rawness, honesty, and brave vulnerability came across in all the lyrics of the album, and it’s really what spoke to me the most. The lo-fi, grunge, and vibey music was really the cherry on top because it’s the evocative emotion of the album that really took the cake. It’s like she’s honouring the flow of emotions, sitting with them, befriending them, and making sure that she walks with them. Most of all, she has a deep awareness of her patterns in love and understands the journey that it’s taken to arrive at these lessons.

If she’s angry, she writes an angry song. If she’s heartbroken, she writes a heartbroken song. And if she’s missing the deep sexual intimacy she experienced with a partner who just wasn’t good for her, she’s writing about that, too. 

As the album progressed, her tracks continued to sound like the pages of my journal, only now I was resonating with the confidence in SZA’s lyrics. It’s the constant teetering between, “I’m over it” and “nope, maybe not”, the forgiveness, the resentment, the joy, and the healing that I continued to resonate with. And you can tell SZA feels the waves of all of this too, showcased by her deliberate placement of “I Hate U” between “Open Arms” featuring Travis Scott and the melodic track “Good Days”. Reminding me once and for all that self-love is a journey and not a destination. You don’t just wake up one day and arrive at self-love and make a home out of it forever. It’s a practice, filled with ups and downs. 

SZA reminded me that to love yourself is to love all of yourself. It’s to love even the parts of yourself that make the mistakes. For when you make mistakes, it’s a chance for you to love yourself that much more, not less. SZA reminded me that it’s not always all black or white— love is grey. She reminded me that my year in love was also grey.

It’s 11:30 pm on Thursday, December 8th, 2022. I’m flipping through the pages of my journal. Self-love has been messy, and I have the pages of this journal and SZA’s sophomore album to prove it.

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Harpo Mander

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