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How SZA’s ‘SOS’ Cut Through the Holiday Noise to Rule the Charts

"[SZA] wrote and sang these songs with her whole heart and mind and soul and pain and life and her whole being," says TDE chief Terrence "Punch" Henderson.

The holiday season is usually a wash when it comes to new music releases: The charts are dominated by the likes of Brenda Lee, Mariah Carey, Michael Bublé and Bing Crosby, and carols are dominating the radio on just about every channel. But this year has been different: While the top 10 of the Hot 100 has been full of the usual suspects, the Billboard 200 has been dominated by SZA’s SOS, the first album by the alt-R&B singer-songwriter in five years that roared out of the gate upon its Dec. 9 release with the fifth-biggest debut of 2022 and that has ruled the Billboard 200 for three straight weeks, bridging the gap between the holiday season and the start of 2023. (And the Hot 100 found room for 20 songs from the album for good measure.)

The success of that release has been no accident. 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, over the course of 2022, have been eating up each single that SZA has released, with “I Hate U,” “Shirt” and, lately, “Kill Bill” all seeing huge success not just at streaming but also at radio as the release date crept closer. And the payoff was worth it: SOS is now the first R&B album by a woman to spend three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in a decade, since Beyoncé’s self-titled album accomplished that feat in 2013. And it helps make Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) president Terrence “Punch” Henderson Billboard’s Executive of the Week.

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Here, Henderson breaks down the rollout of the album, the way that both RCA and TDE helped build anticipation for the release and how the quality of SZA’s music helped push a hotly anticipated album into commercially successful and universally acclaimed territory once again. “SOS is what the fans have been waiting on and they’ve shown that. It’s been so much love and support since it dropped,” he says. “But it literally takes an army to make this whole thing work. It starts with SZA — she wrote and sang these songs with her whole heart and mind and soul and pain and life and her whole being. She put everything she had into 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 key decisions were picking the songs and literally putting them out. The people have been waiting for SZA’s next offering for a long time. It takes time to create quality art that will last and really stand the test of time. That’s what we aim to do every time. Once it got to a comfortable space, we put it out and the people responded.

It’s been more than five years since SZA’s last album. How did you roll this 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 engulfed in what’s to come next. That’s something we’ve been doing since 2014. Once we got the album concepts pretty much locked in, I wanted to start sending out some clues for the core fan base. So we loaded the “Shirt” visual with a bunch of bread crumbs hinting at what’s to come. Then the Morse Code thing to further the conversations surrounding the album. Mix that with the amazing promo videos that SZA shot, and it was a good recipe. Even the spats online. Though they be real — and a bit out of context (Laughs.) — it’s still all about the conversation surrounding the album.

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

There was talk of possibly pushing to January for that very reason. But personally, I’m not scared of the holiday season at all. To me, if everyone is thinking the same thing about not dropping during the holidays, that just means it’s wide open. (Laughs.) We dropped “Good Days” on Christmas! The main issue was radio during that time, but with streaming it’s different; you don’t have to wait on programming, etc. The furthest I would’ve pushed it to was Dec. 30. And that’s because it was mentioned in Billboard that we were dropping in December. Once a date is said, I’m sticking to it.

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

Again, the main thing we can do is provide the music. It does what it does after that. The streaming team and radio team do a great job at 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 atop the charts?

Most of the work comes in the setup and it carries over from there. First, you have to have great records and then you have to know where you can get the records from. You have to know that the album is out. [RCA executives] Zay [Isiaih Bonds] and Tío Matty [Matt Bernal] have to be engaging the [digital service providers]. Jordan [Blaugrund] has to have a sales strategy. Baby Sam [Selolwane], Keith [Rothschild], LG [Lori Giamela] and Inca [Kevin Valentini] have to be on the phones with radio people. Camille [Yorrick] need to be speaking to directors and producers to make sure we good to shoot visuals through the holiday season. Ashley [Monae] has to be on with photographers and videographers and BTS people to make sure the images are right for exclusives, etc. I know it’s a ton of people I’m missing who played a role in this, but all of these things and people were in place to deliver the record.

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SOS is the first R&B album by a woman to spend three weeks at No. 1 in 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 have made those stats a reality?

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