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SZA sends out a powerful 'SOS,' mixing pop, hip-hop and R&B

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Five years after the release of SZA's debut album, "Ctrl," she has a new album called "SOS". Released at the very end of last year, it went immediately to No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. Rock critic Ken Tucker has been listening to its collection of 23 songs that straddle pop, hip-hop and R&B. And he thinks "SOS" ended last year with a bang that's still reverberating.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTICE ME")

SZA: (Singing) You stay on my mind. I can't regret no time spent with you. And I still wonder if you notice me, yes.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Five years ago, SZA's debut collection, "Ctrl," hit home to a lot of listeners for the portrait she painted of a young woman going through changes with conflicting feelings, ambition and insecurity, awkwardness and defiant self-assurance. On the new album, "SOS," SZA describes her world with even more precision and a bittersweet edge. On the song called "Shirt," for instance, she wants to share some romantic disappointment, urging the listener to, quote, "feel the taste of resentment".

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHIRT")

SZA: (Singing) Kiss me dangerous. Been so lost without you all around me. Get anxious. Lead me, don't look back. It's all about you. In the dark right now. Feeling lost, but I like it. Comfort in my sins and all about me - all I got right now. Feel the taste of resentment. Simmer in my skin. It's all about - bloodstain on my shirt...

TUCKER: SZA, who's in her early 30s, was born Solana Imani Rowe. Raised in a devout Muslim family and Maplewood, N.J., she's described her childhood as very sheltered, very conservative. Her father forbade her from listening to profane hip-hop music. On the other hand, he was a producer at CNN, her mother an executive at AT&T, and SZA definitely comes across as connected to the wider world. She sings and raps in a fluid manner that renders her crooning conversational. The instrumentation behind her emphasizes hip-hop rhythms, even as the frequent medium tempos and romantic imagery hearken back to the quiet storm era of R&B in the 1980s. You can hear Luther Vandross and Minnie Riperton and Peabo Bryson in her approach.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GONE GIRL")

SZA: (Singing) I need more space and security. I need less voices, just you and me. I need your touch, not your scrutiny. Squeezing too tight, boy, you're losing me. Boy, you're losing - gone, gone girl, gone girl. You better learn how to face it. She's gone, gone girl. She's gone girl. You never replace her. She's gone, gone girl, gone girl. You better learn how to face it. She's gone, gone girl. She's gone girl.

TUCKER: I'll play a bit of two songs to suggest SZA's range over the course of this meaty 23-track album. On one of the best here, her song called "Ghost In The Machine," SZA creates an eerie soundscape and makes her voice snake in and around the melody. Her voice bends and breaks with hopelessness about a pending disaster. You can't be sure whether she's talking about the end of a relationship or the end of the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GHOST IN THE MACHINE")

SZA: (Singing) Everything disgusting, conversation is so boring. Heard about what? I hate her, I don't agree, I did it first. I give a - I just wanna - eat, sleep, love, happy. Can you make me happy? Can you keep me happy? Can you distract me from all the disaster? Can you touch on me and not call me after? Can you hate on me and mask it with laughter? Can you lead me to the ark? What's the password? I need humanity. Y'all lack humanity, drowning in vanity. Craving humanity.

TUCKER: At other moments, SZA slides into singer-songwriter mode. She out-Taylors (ph) Taylor Swift on the songs "F2F" and, as I'll play here, "Nobody Gets Me," with its strummed acoustic guitar and its lyric about sending out big love and not receiving enough of it back in kind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOBODY GETS ME")

SZA: (Singing) Nobody gets me. Took me out to the ballet. You proposed. I went on the road. You was feeling empty, so you left me. Now I'm stuck dealing with a deadbeat. If I'm real, I deserve less. If I was you, I wouldn't take me back. I pretend when I'm with a man, it's you. And I know that it's too late. I don't want to lose what's left of you. How am I supposed to tell ya? I don't want to see you with anyone but me. Nobody gets me like you. How am I supposed to let you go? Only like myself when I'm with you. Nobody gets me. You do. You do. Nobody gets me. You do.

TUCKER: There's a song on this album in which SZA fantasizes about killing her ex-boyfriend and another in which she says, I'm still playing the victim. But one of the best things about "SOS" is that it rejects simple notions of victim versus victimizer. These new songs resist any listener's attempt to figure out the real SZA. She's making music that's more interested in reaching out, in wondering what you think about your life.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed SZA's new album, "SOS." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be champion distance runner Lauren Fleshman. She's now a coach and an activist working to get the sports world to recognize the differences in male and female bodies and stop practices that encourage girls to become anorexic, lose their periods and end up disrupting the hormonal function essential to building healthy bones and a healthy body. She knows this from the research, as well as personal experience. She's written a new memoir called "Good For A Girl." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEEK & DESTROY")

SZA: (Singing) You push me past my own capacity, boy. Permission to crash, collecting damages, boy. No reaching and grabbing for more clarity now. Seek and destroy, all missiles deployed. Do it to you. Do it to you. I had to do it to you. Do it to you. Don't make me do it to you. Do it to you. Do it to you.

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEEK & DESTROY")

SZA: (Singing) Now that I've ruined everything, keep it all for me. Now that I've ruined everything, space is all I need. Do it to you. Do it to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.