The best SZA songs are about trying to make the most of a situation that’s not ideal, from the time-share romance of “The Weekend” to the yearning, lovelorn chase anthem “Anything” to the spiteful persistence of “HiiiJack.” Few of SZA’s peers in songwriting are as tuned into the reality of romance as a game of trial and error where the contestants are all flawed, and you can easily lose no matter how well you play your hand. Like Ctrl’s “Drew Barrymore,” SZA’s new “Hit Different” is a song about hanging around someone who might seem like bad news because it’s harder to start over than it is to stay put, even if your mate is inattentive and emotionally distant. What sets the writing apart from your run-of-the-mill callout jam is that SZA is not just annoyed by a love interest’s bad moods and drifting eye; she’s annoyed by herself and her willingness to suffer through these difficulties. Smarter still is how, if you don’t want to lean in and nitpick about lyrics, you can still receive “Hit Different” on a surface level as a cozy, airy Ty Dolla $ign collab built around a popular 2020 turn of phrase. That lightness is thanks in part to The Neptunes, whose production marries the their trademark sparseness to the building blocks of ’90s R&B, to the soaring synths, staccato bass, and splashes of chords in Aaliyah’s “Back and Forth” or Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down.”
The video for “Hit Different,” which marks SZA’s debut as a director, is every bit as deceptively upbeat as the lyrics are. On the surface, it’s a throwback to a time when seemingly every R&B video featured elaborate group choreography. But something is not right, as quick flashes of the singer covered in blood undercut the otherwise carefree dance routines. The visual callbacks are vast and smart. The car scenes look like an homage to the parking lot dance from Solange’s When I Get Home visual album. The junkyard shots evoke the section of French director Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 Rolling Stones film Sympathy for the Devil where Black revolutionary tracts are read aloud before a backdrop of smashed up cars. The bloody lady bringing chaos to idyllic farm scenes is a vision of Black antebellum horror typified by Oprah and Jonathan Demme’s too soon forgotten 1998 adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The beaded braids SZA wears on the pommel horse at the end were disco legend Patrice Rushen’s signature look at her peak. In spite of familiar sights and sounds, both song and video feel fresh and fuss-free. Like the best Top Dawg Entertainment singles, “Hit Different” is both cogent mainstream music and slyly referential art.