Mud, mess and murder ballads: SZA’s massive success shows that pop fans are craving realness

<span>Photograph: Scott Garfitt/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Scott Garfitt/REX/Shutterstock

SZA is a different breed of pop star. In even her most glammed-up press shot, she is splattered with blood; in another, she’s coated in a thick film of mud, and on the cover of her second album, the emotional bombshell that is SOS, she sits with her back facing the camera, looking out on a vast ocean, in a nod to a famed paparazzi shot of Princess Diana. These are distancing devices – ways for the 33-year-old musician to armour herself against the leery intensity of fame.

It makes sense that she would have an inclination towards self-protection: SOS contains some of the most intense, emotionally scabrous music to grace the UK or US charts in a long time. Case in point: Kill Bill, the album’s calling-card, is hardly your typical pop radio fare. It’s an unapologetic, avowedly sober murder ballad, in which SZA sings over a diffuse boom-bap beat about killing her ex-boyfriend so that no other woman can ever have him. The production is plush, comically light, gilded with soft doo-wop harmonies, but the lyrics are brazen, galvanised and monomaniacal. Although named for the Quentin Tarantino film, Kill Bill’s revenge fantasy provides no real emotional payoff; its narrative is a cry of pure fatalism, with no return for its narrator other than a split-second of bloodlust. I heard SOS at a listening session a week before its release, and when Kill Bill concluded – with SZA’s emphatic “Rather be in hell than alone” – you could hear much of those in attendance let out an audible “oof”.

This week, the song finally hit No 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 after a long run in the Top 5, nearly five months on from the release of SOS. The album spent nine weeks at No 1 on the Billboard 200, making it the longest-charting No 1 by a woman since Adele’s 25 seven years before, despite not yet being available in any physical formats.

SZA’s success feels like a win for a kind of pop music that’s in short supply right now. The songs that had been holding Kill Bill from the top spot, Morgan Wallen’s Last Night and Miley Cyrus’s Flowers, feel boilerplate in their emotion, presenting easily digestible versions of post-breakup sadness and post-breakup empowerment respectively. SOS is captivatingly messy, not just in its sad, funny, sexually frank lyrics, but in its production, which makes room for a country-emo hybrid, 90s-indebted rap, and plugs samples of Björk and Ol’ Dirty Bastard into the same song. SZA’s remarkable voice, somehow husky and mellifluous at the same time, is instantly distinctive – but seemingly unlimited in its applications, so broadly does she modulate it here – and is the unifying factor; it allows her to experiment far more widely than a lot of her contemporaries. The closest comparison in recent memory might be Janet Jackson’s unimpeachable output at the turn of the 90s – a time of commercial and critical dominance in which she experimented with nascent genres such as trip-hop and contended lyrically with both her newfound status as a sex symbol and a deepening depression.

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That being said, the week that SOS came out, I couldn’t listen to it without thinking of another 90s icon: Fiona Apple. Both SZA and Apple have an uncanny ability to alchemise vulnerability into something defiant, martial and courageous. Much has been made of the way SZA fits into a millennial “messy woman” archetype – many of these songs are, after all, Fleabaggy admissions of returning to shitty exes, filled with droll pearlers like “Knowin’ you gon’ block me tomorrow, can you still come and get me?” – but you could also consider the thesis of SOS to be Apple’s famed observation: “This world is bullshit.” The lyrics that stick out to me aren’t the deeply sad ones that seem to be the basis for a lot of 2am tweets and TikTok captions, but the ones that call bullshit on ideas that SZA should have to be respectable or “real”, or that crying over her exes precludes her from showing any kind of emotional strength: “That ass so fat / It look natural / It’s not / I talk bullshit a lot”; “Fuckin’ on my ex ’cause he validate me”; “Them ‘ho’ accusations weak / Them ‘bitch’ accusations true.”

This is not to say that SZA writes, particularly, like Apple. But SZA’s unfiltered outlook and totally distinctive sound seems to satiate a similar desire that Apple’s music has throughout her career: one for an acidic, uncompromising taste of reality amidst a cultural landscape that can feel decadent and overly manicured. (Or, to borrow another Apple line: for someone “pissed off, funny and warm”.) SOS’s success has come almost entirely from streaming – album downloads of the record are minuscule – meaning that its listeners are not just dipping in once, but listening constantly. Her fans are intensely devoted, evidenced by the fact that she will headline four shows at London’s O2 this summer, just two shy of Madonna’s run later this year. It’s the mark of an artist who has struck a genuine chord – or, perhaps more accurately, a nerve.