The Perfectly Off-Center Sound of SZA’s New Song, ‘Quicksand’

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SZA. Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for BET

It’s not all that serious — is it? When SZA’s long-delayed and much-awaited debut LP Ctrl finally came out this year, the rapturous welcome it received was based, at heart, on the uncanny skill with which the R&B singer spun out the experience of romantic marginality, voicing the tensions and indignities of being sidelined, with a poise that didn’t quite conceal the desperation it restrained. SZA’s songs were delicate, tenacious, in permanent motion — like floaters in the eye, they demanded to be seen, but drifted out once you tried to focus on them. Ctrl was a performance so convincing that it left one wondering if things had ever been different. She made the side-chick experience so universal that you couldn’t help but suspect that the universe itself was a peripheral affair, a dalliance to be entertained on the side while the powers that be swiped for better realities to commit to.

A similar experience of falling away seems to animate Insecure, the HBO comedy created by Issa Rae, the second season of which is set to wrap up this weekend. Issa and Molly, the two main characters, both black women enmeshed in professional careers, and in the prime of their dating years, are constantly in circulation: Issa’s relationships never quite end while Molly’s never quite begin. Sex flows in abundance, but love is anemic at best, and the white co-workers are casually racist and get paid more for the same labor. All one can do, under such adverse circumstances, is laugh. It was no shock to hear “Supermodel,” the lead track on Ctrl, feature prominently on the current season’s playlist, and, as Issa Rae confirmed at a recent Genius event, there were several other songs that were ideal accompaniment for characters and plotlines centered on the absence of ideal company.

Released last night, “Quicksand,” an original SZA track attached to the recently released Insecure season-two soundtrack, could easily have slipped into the Ctrl tracklist unnoticed. It’s classic SZA season music: the deft repetitions that home in on a topic without quite reaching it, the vocal melodies that gently stab at the conscience but pull away at the last second, the romantic striving that never overcomes its inhibitions: “I’m scared of love, yeah, and you’re hard to trust.” The miracle of her music is that she actually does get her point across. Her point, though, is that even if you get your point across, there’ll still be something missing. No one can ever have it all, but the light yet unsettled ’70s vibe of the production and her uniquely curving voice ought to be enough for happiness.

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SZA’s ‘Quicksand’ Is Perfectly Off-Center