How SZA’s ‘SOS’ cuts through the holiday noise to rule the charts

The holiday season is usually a wash when it comes to new music releases: the charts are dominated by e.g. Brenda Lee, Mariah Carey, Michael Buble and Bing Crosby, and Christmas carols dominate the radio on almost all channels. But this year has been different: while the top 10 of the Hot 100 has been filled with the usual suspects, the Billboard 200 has been dominated by SZA‘s SEA, the first album from the alt-R&B singer/songwriter in five years, which roared out of the gate in December. 9 release with fifth biggest debut in 2022 and it has ruled the Billboard 200 for three weeks in a rowthat bridges the gap between the holiday season and the opening of 2023. (And the Hot 100 found room 20 songs from the album for good measure.)

The success of that release has not been accidental. SZA’s fans have been patiently—or not so patiently—waiting for the follow-up to her critically and culturally acclaimed 2017 album CTRL for years and throughout 2022 has eaten up every single SZA has released, with “I Hate U,” “Shirt” and most recently “Kill Bill” all experiencing massive success not just on streaming , but also at radio as the release date crept closer. And the payoff was worth it: SEA is now the first R&B album by a woman to spend three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 a decade ago Beyonces self-titled album achieved that feat in 2013. And it helps make TDE president Terrence “Punch” Henderson BillboardLeader of the week.

Here, Punch breaks down the rollout of the album, how both RCA and TDE helped build anticipation for the release, and how the quality of SZA’s music helped push a long-awaited album into commercially successful and universally acclaimed territory again. “SEA is what the fans have been waiting for and they have delivered. There has been so much love and support since it went down,’ he says. “But it literally takes an army to make it all work. It starts with SZA — she wrote and sang these songs with all her heart and mind and soul and pain and life and her whole being. She put everything she had, in it.”

This week, SZA’s SOS spent its third week at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. What key decisions did you make to help make that happen?

The most important decisions were choosing the songs and literally putting them out there. The people have been waiting for SZA’s next offering for a long time. It takes time to create quality art that lasts and can really stand the test of time. That’s what we aim to do every time. When it came to a comfortable place, we put it out and the people responded.

It’s been more than five years since SZA’s last album. How did you roll it out differently with how much things have changed in that time?

Everything is the rollout. Every time we drop a single, we attach another record to it just to keep people engrossed in what’s coming next. It’s something we’ve been doing since 2014. Once we got the album concepts pretty much locked down, I wanted to start sending some clues out to the core fan base. So we loaded the “Shirt” visual with a bunch of breadcrumbs hinting at what’s to come. Then the Morse code to further the conversations around the album. Mix that with the amazing promo videos that SZA shot and it was a great recipe. Even the spats online. Although they are real – and a little out of context [Laughs] — it’s still about the conversation around the album.

December is traditionally a tough month to release an album, given the holiday music that often dominates. How did you set this up before release to help it cut through the holiday noise?

There was talk of possibly pushing it to January for that very reason. But personally, I’m not afraid of the holiday season at all. To me, if everyone thinks the same about NOT dropping during the holidays, that just means it’s open. [Laughs] We dropped “Good Days” for Christmas! The main problem was radio in those days, but with streaming it’s different; you don’t have to wait for programming etc. The furthest I would have pushed it to was dec. 30. And that’s because it was mentioned in Billboard which we dropped in December. Once a date is set, I stick to it.

“I Hate U,” “Shirt” and “Kill Bill” all did well on both streaming and radio. What did you do to help those songs cut through?

Again, the most important thing we can do is provide the music. It does what it does afterwards. The streaming team and the radio team are doing a great job of pushing the records, but they need the records first.

How have you been able to keep the album’s momentum going through the new year and keep it at the top of the charts?

Most of the work comes in the setup and it continues from there. First you have to have good plates, and then you have to know where you can get the plates from. You should know that the album is out. [RCA execs] Zay [Isiaih Bonds] and Uncle Matty [Matt Bernal] must engage the DSPs. Jordan [Blaugrund] must have a sales strategy. Baby Sam [Selolwane], Keith [Rothschild], LG [Lori Giamela] and Inca [Kevin Valentini] must be on the phones with radio people. Camille [Yorrick] have to talk to directors and producers to make sure we’re good at shooting through the holiday season. Ashley [Monae] have to be on with photographers and videographers and BTS people to make sure the pictures are right for exclusives etc. I know there’s a ton of people I’m missing that played a part in this but all these things and people were in place to deliver the record.

SEA is the first R&B album by a woman to spend three weeks at No. 1 for a decade since Beyoncé’s self-titled project in 2013. It also had the fifth-biggest debut week of all of 2022. What is it about her and this project that has made those stats a reality?

SEA is what the fans have been waiting for and they have delivered. There has been so much love and support since it dropped. But it literally takes an army to make it all work. It starts with SZA – she wrote and sang these songs with all her heart and mind and soul and pain and life and her whole being. She put everything she had into it. Then you have all the producers involved in laying the soundscape. You have Melissa Heath on the management side of things and making sure everything is streamlined and running as it should. The entire TDE staff and the entire RCA staff on the front lines. The executive power with [RCA’s] Peter [Edge] and Fleck [John Fleckenstein], Top [Dawg] and myself. Miss Carolyn [Williams] monitors everything. Theola [Borden] supervision of the press and TV etc. And the fans. It literally takes an army of people. It’s also a full-circle moment, as Beyoncé was the first person of that caliber to reach out to SZA and get her to come to work. Now to be mentioned in the same breath as her is truly amazing.

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