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Five Burning Questions: SZA Holds at No. 1 for Third Week With ‘SOS’ Album

todayJanuary 4, 2023 4

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As we begin 2023, the Billboard 200 albums chart is once again dominated by the same set that crowned the chart the final two weeks of 2022: R&B superstar SZA‘s long-awaited sophomore effort SOS.


The album, which bowed at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 (dated Dec. 24) with 318,000 equivalent album units, has continued to move well over 100,000 units each week of its release — posting 128,000 this most recent week (dated Jan. 7), enough to land it comfortably in the top spot. Meanwhile, breakout cut “Kill Bill” remains lingering just outside of the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, two weeks after scoring the album’s highest debut on the chart with its No. 3 entrance.

Are these numbers surprising for SZA at this point in her career? And which other R&B artists have the most-anticipated upcoming projects for 2023 and beyond? Billboard staffers answer these questions and more below.

1. SZA’s first-week bow for SOS was resounding — a career-best 318,000 equivalent album units — and the album has continued to crank out six-figure weeks, topping the Billboard 200 for a third frame with 128,000 units this week, even in the midst of the holiday season. Which is more impressive to you, the album’s debut or its endurance? 

Cydney Lee: If I had to choose, I’d say its endurance is more impressive, but even that’s not surprising to me. Not only was SZA’s next album highly anticipated by nearly everyone, I also think timing worked in her favor too. For her to basically cap off the year with her comeback album, and at a time when major music releases are starting to slow down due to the holidays, there was no doubt she would dominate the night of her release and subsequent weeks. Not that she wouldn’t have all eyes/ears on her if she dropped at any other time, either — but the timing, obviously along with the music itself, is what officially made this “SZA Season.”

Jason Lipshutz: Definitely its endurance. If SZA was a cult R&B figure, a major debut that snaps a prolonged absence (and then plummets down the Billboard 200 chart) would make sense — but the continued performance of SZA’s first album in five years confirms that she’s transcended that status, has far more fans than just the diehards, and is now a straight-up superstar. SZA’s Ctrl follow-up was always going to be a major moment, but the endurance of SOS atop the Billboard 200 — with six-figure equivalent album unit totals each week! — represents a groundbreaking moment for her mainstream profile.

Heran Mamo: The album’s endurance. SZA has never had a No. 1 album until now. Despite Ctrl’s ability toshift the culture, it never moved past its No. 3 debut on the Billboard 200 back in June 2017. To launch at the top of the chart is impressive albeit expected given it’s her first new album in five years and there was a lot of hype (I’m talking years’ worth) surrounding SOS. prior to its releaseAnd sure, it’s been a relatively quiet winter so far in terms of new music releases, so SZA didn’t have much competition. But putting up six-figure equivalent album units for the last three consecutive weeks – and becoming the first R&B album by a woman to spend three weeks at No. 1 since Beyonce’s self-titled in 2013 – are much harder feats to accomplish. And she did that! 

Kristin Robinson: This album was highly anticipated, given the critical and commercial success of Ctrl and other singles she’s worked on, so I am not surprised there was a lot of initial interest in this album. In the streaming age, when there no financial barrier to testing out a new album in full, an artist as beloved as SZA can anticipate solid numbers for the first few days — because this indicates that many people were at least curious about the project and gave it a couple spins.

True success for an artist today comes in the form of streaming endurance. If people didn’t like this album, the streaming numbers for this album would’ve fallen off of a cliff after the first or second week, but it totally didn’t. The endurance of SOS. is even more impressive when you also consider people were busy with the holidays, likely spending much of their time listening to seasonal music. Still, they kept SZA in rotation. It’s a clear testament to the quality of her work.  

Andrew Unterberger: Yeah, it’s gotta be the endurance. It’d be over-simplifying to say that anyone can post a six-digit first week in 2023 — obviously, it’s still only a select class of artists that can do that — but most true stars can do so on name recognition alone. It takes a great album to continue putting those numbers up week after week. Several albums last year had bigger opening weeks than Bad Bunny’s Un Verano Sin Ti in 2022, but the reason why it ended as the year’s No. 1 album (by both Billboard chart metrics and staff estimation) is because folks couldn’t stop listening to it for months after. SOS may be headed for a similar trajectory.

2. Though SZA has long been one of the bigger names in popular music, this is her first time putting up blockbuster numbers like this — in large part because it’s still only her second album. Do the numbers surprise you, or did you see them coming for her at this point in her career?

Cydney Lee: I’m not surprised. SZA came out swinging with Ctrl, then only poked her head out here-and-there and offered crumbs for the past five years. Her trajectory is interesting, though. I think the anticipation of her next project is what maybe drove her to more of a mainstream status.

If one thing about SZA’s recent success surprised me, it’s the fact that she’s headlining an arena tour. Despite her success and popularity, I honestly didn’t think she would be at arena-level quite yet, but maybe theater venues. Regardless, I love this for her, and I hope she can find a balance between this increasing fame and protecting her mental health and peace.

Jason Lipshutz: Considering how well Ctrl has aged since its release — becoming one of the more fiercely beloved R&B releases of the decade — and how SZA has showcased her crossover appeal by guesting on top 10 Hot 100 hits by Kendrick Lamar and Doja Cat since its release, her second album was always headed toward a ton of fanfare and a likely No. 1 debut. Yet that debut number of 318,000 equivalent album units surprised me — a huge sum for any artist, but especially for an idiosyncratic R&B artist who’s never tried to cater to the mainstream. It’s the sort of debut that demonstrates how many people were waiting for SZA to return, and how many are rooting for her now that she has.

Heran Mamo: Considering the blockbuster streaming numbers that her advance singles like “Good Days” and “I Hate U” were putting up (“Good Days” had earned more than 500 million official on-demand U.S. streams prior to SOS’ arrival), I’m not totally caught off guard by the entire LP’s six-digit figures. Her strength is certainly in streaming, considering how in its first week at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, SOS garnered the biggest streaming week ever for an R&B album, and the third-largest of 2022 among all albums.  

Kristin Robinson: I saw these numbers coming for her, because I’ve always believed in her one-in-a-million kind of talent — but that doesn’t mean it was easy or guaranteed. Starting off with a debut album as well-crafted as Ctrl means that the bar was set incredibly high for SZA, almost insurmountably high. If listeners didn’t like this album, they would’ve been quick to abandon it and write her off as a one-album wonder, but she took her time and came back with a wonderful project that can stand proudly beside Ctrl. It was worth the wait. Of course, these numbers were also aided by the large track list, but I think they indicate people are ready to accept SZA as the true star she is.

Andrew Unterberger: They’re maybe at the high-end of my expectations, but they’re still not that surprising. SZA has proven herself as a generational R&B artist with crossover hitmaker potential, and those are the kind of artists that post huge numbers whenever they drop new albums — especially if it’s been a half-decade since the last one, with the excitement only ever crescendoing over that period.

3. Of the album’s 22 tracks, the best-performing by far has been “Kill Bill” — which has the advantage of coming early in the album, but also has been easily outpacing its surrounding tracks. What do you think is the biggest factor in its early success, and do you see it continuing throughout the early months of 2023? 

Cydney Lee: “Kill Bill” is a song for people who love hard. “I might kill my ex/ Not the best idea/ His new girlfriend’s next/ How’d I get here?,” that chorus is so blunt, and while I obviously am not encouraging anyone to act on this, what woman (especially) hasn’t emotionally been there before?? Also, people just love violence, and seem to have a weird fascination with “crazy in love” relationship dynamics — and with it being track two on SOS, it almost felt like it was setting the tone for the album. So I can see why people are latching on to this one.

As far as longevity, I see “Kill Bill” fizzling out over time, and maybe a song like “Conceited” or something more cheery and uplifting taking over, especially as people start activating their “new year, new me” moods. It’s OK to sulk in those explosive emotions — but remember your worth!!!

Jason Lipshutz: I was initially surprised that “Kill Bill” became the breakout hit of SOS when songs like “Nobody Gets Me” and “F2F” sounded more immediate, but its lyrics — especially that stinging final line “Rather be in hell than alone” — linger in your brain, begging to be hoisted up, replayed and presented in TikTok clips. “Kill Bill” is going to be one of the defining hits of the first quarter of 2023, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it became SZA’s first career Hot 100-topper in the next few weeks.

Heran Mamo: It’s a mix of the pop culture reference to the Kill Bill movies as well as her deliciously vengeful and emotionally impactful songwriting. Even when I heard “Kill Bill” in an early studio session while writing the SZA cover story, the lyrics “I might kill my ex, not the best idea/ His new girlfriend’s next, how’d I get here?” and “You was at the farmer’s market with your perfect peach” immediately stood out to me as proof SZA had stepped up her pen game. Additionally, I think the Kill Bill inspo fueled anticipation for the upcoming music video, which SZA herself wrote under the official teaser “It’s what y’all deserve.” Hopefully, after all the Christmas songs gradually come off the Hot 100 in the coming weeks, we’ll see “Kill Bill” return to the chart’s top 10.  

Kristin Robinson: In a track list this long, it certainly helps that it comes early in the album, but the melody of “Kill Bill” is was really makes it irresistible. It’s always stuck in my head. I think it’s a perfect hit to represent SZA’s career. The title is an allusion to a film, which falls in line with her relatable girl-next-door persona and is reminiscent of Ctrl hit “Drew Barrymore,” which alludes to the film actress. Overall, the lyrics are also just melodramatic fun.   

Andrew Unterberger: Don’t have a great answer here yet — the song hasn’t grabbed me the way some others have so far, though it’s starting to win me over — but obviously the chorus is both striking and catchy enough that it was bound to make a rather wide impression fairly quickly. And based on its continually staggering streaming numbers, it’s not going away anytime soon; if and when radio decides to embrace it in a similar fashion, it may contend for No. 1 on the Hot 100 sooner than later.

4. Though SOS comes a full half-decade after SZA’s beloved debut Ctrl, after years of much-discussed delays and false starts and label disputes, the set’s early performance suggests the layover period might’ve had a positive effect on her career momentum if anything. What’s something you think she’s done well or smartly over the past five years to really set the stage for SOS‘ huge bow? 

Cydney Lee: Something SZA’s done well is that she didn’t completely disappear in between albums. She dropped singles here and there, was semi-active on social media, teased new songs, etc. — and even closer to SOS, the rollout and press she did was great considering her resistance to it sometimes. Also, no one really knew what the theme/concept of the follow-up would be until she started rolling it out. I think that added level of mystery over what direction she would go in upon returning added to the fans’ eagerness to see what was coming next.

Jason Lipshutz: One could point to SZA’s collaborations with A-listers like Kendrick Lamar, Justin Timberlake and Doja Cat as flash points that kept her in the public consciousness; the solo tracks that she released in the two years prior to SOS, including “Good Days” and “I Hate U,” also whet R&B fans’ appetites for the Ctrl follow-up. But really, both of SZA’s albums are so bulletproof that she could have vanished in the half-decade between them and still found a sizable audience for both. The commercial performance of SOS didn’t rely upon the new fans gained from her pop collaborations or one-off singles, but represented an amalgamation of all of the excitement around her artistry, as a singular voice in modern music.

Heran Mamo: She expertly promoted the first slew of singles (e.g., “Good Days,” “I Hate U” and “Shirt”) by teasing them at the tail-end of music videos, thus building anticipation for months, even years, before they’re officially released. And in the age of TikTok, SZA could just sit back, relax and watch her songs blow up before they were even out by going to TikTok and seeing how fans were ravenously consuming those snippets. “They told us what they wanted,” said Carolyn Williams, executive vp of RCA, in SZA’s aforementioned cover story about their single release strategy – and it totally paid off for Team SZA.  

Kristin Robinson: In her break between albums, SZA smartly asserted that she was not just the cool artist who made the critically-lauded Ctrl, but she could also top charts. It’s a hard line to walk, trying to get more mainstream popularity but maintaining her core fans, but collaborating on songs like “Kiss Me More” proved to radio programmers and to the general public that she was capable of top 40-level adoration. Now, the sky’s the limit for the breakout hits from SOS (yes, I anticipate more than just “Kill Bill” will blow up in the coming months).  

Andrew Unterberger: Certainly helps that she just kept getting better over that period. The three advance singles for SOS — “Good Days,” “I Hate U” and “Shirt,” released between 2020 and 2022 — are simply three of her best songs yet, pushing her into new sonic territory while also confirming and building on past strengths. And the fact that all three show up towards the end of SOS as near afterthoughts show just how strong her songcraft is across the board right now.

5. Now that SZA’s sophomore set is finally out in the world, which artist do you think currently holds the status of being the R&B star with the most-anticipated long-awaited new album? 

Cydney Lee: Frank Ocean. I’d even say Daniel Caesar too, but he teased his return recently, so a project from him might already be coming sooner than we think.

Jason Lipshutz: Don’t look now, but the wait between D’Angelo’s 2014 opus Black Messiah and his next album is now more than half as long as the wait was between 2000’s Voodoo and Black Messiah, which was more of the most infamous long-gestating albums ever released. No clue on when (or if) a new D’Angelo project will actually surface, but here’s hoping that we won’t have to wait another six years to hear it.

Heran Mamo: Kelela. The “When the world needed her most… she vanished” jokes (as inspired by Avatar: The Last Airbender) certainly didn’t write themselves on Twitter. Like SZA, she’s also gone five years without dropping a full-length album and her fans have been desperately waiting for one. Lucky for them, her sophomore album Raven will arrive on February 10, and I’ve already chatted with her about the details if anyone wants to read the full interview here.  

Kristin Robinson: I’d like to see something new from Daniel Caesar. I enjoyed 2019’s CASE STUDY 01, even though it fell short of the popularity of 2017’s Freudian, and I’m hoping to hear more from him this year. Similarly to SZA’s success as a featured artist on “Kiss Me More,” Caesar topped charts with his feature on “Peaches” by Justin Bieber last year. I wonder if that radio hit could open Caesar up to a bigger, more mainstream audience when he opts to drop his third album.

Andrew Unterberger: It’s probably Frank Ocean, but let’s not forget about Janelle Monáe, who released arguably her best-received album to date in 2018’s ambitious Dirty Computer, and has only seen her multi-platform star grow in the years since — most recently with her lead turn in Netflix’s blockbuster Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. Monáe has yet to post true superstar numbers with a new album, but the next time around, it might be more surprising if she didn’t see those kinds of commercial returns. (Of course, whether it’ll be with a truly R&B-based album or some kind of indie-funk space-rock opera remains to be seen.)

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