Metaphorically speaking, SZA is on top of the world. Physically, the newly minted arena pop star was down on her knees aboard a grimy fishing boat, unfurling a screed of insecurities before a sold-out Climate Pledge Arena crowd Thursday night in Seattle.
Singing her fan favorite “Drew Barrymore” like the complicated love of her life depended on it, the vocal power of the rangy singer-songwriter, who’s rooted in R&B, began to swell. Buttressed by her band that feverishly built up beneath her, one of the most distinct voices in pop music steadily rose until it was booming through the arena as the song crashed in catharsis like one of the ocean waves that often flooded the big screen behind SZA, in keeping with her SOS Tour’s lost-at-sea theme.
If the thousands of grinning faces who hollered along to SZA’s lovesick confessionals were any indication, a lot of people got over their exes during last night’s 90-minute nautical love saga, which packed enough melodrama for an HBO miniseries.
In her maiden voyage as a bona fide arena headliner, the reclusive star certainly proved up to the big-room challenge. One of SZA’s biggest strengths as a songwriter is the intimacy in her lyrics, delivered with a real-talk casualness fans can easily connect with. That heart-to-heart frankness still managed to cut through the pomp of a massive tour production and the din of thousands of screaming fans, who were even louder for SZA than they were for heartthrob opener Omar Apollo. Half the songs felt like a happy hour vent sesh among 15,000 or so besties made closer from sharing their innermost thoughts, however unflattering.
Perhaps somewhat ironically, the most intimate portion of the show was also the biggest spectacle.
Hovering above the crowd (a classic pop star move) in a lifeboat drifting toward a lighthouse in the back of the arena, SZA went acoustic, mashing up another fan favorite, “Supermodel,” with the wounded and remorseful “Special,” off her long-awaited sophomore smash “SOS,” which dropped in December. The hard-luck lover fought through a brief mic malfunction, with help from the singing crowd, to nail “Nobody Gets Me,” an aching breakup ballad that could make Adele’s lips quiver.
The five-year gap between “SOS” and SZA’s 2017 debut “Ctrl,” one of the decade’s defining R&B albums, only heightened expectations. By all accounts, the ambitious 23-song LP has been a critical and commercial success, spending a whopping 10 weeks atop Billboard’s album chart — reportedly the longest reign for an R&B album since Usher’s “Confessions” in 2004.
At the same time, the 3-month-old “SOS” arrived as an artistic statement designed to show that SZA can’t be confined to an R&B box. We already knew she could knock out the overt pop anthems, thanks to “All the Stars” — the galaxy-cruising single from the blockbusting “Black Panther” soundtrack, which sounded good last night, if aesthetically incongruous with the staging’s darker motifs — and “Kiss Me More,” a dance-pop Doja Cat collab that hit even harder. But the Paramore-channeling “F2F,” a fuzzy, emo-tinged romper that’s easily SZA’s hardest sonic turn, came off more natural live among a youthful crowd that was eager to shout along, even to the slow jams.
The pop-punk number slid nicely into a particular hard-rocking section where SZA’s band helped push the pitter-pattering “Prom” into a fuller, ’80s-style power rocker before squealing guitars went toe to toe with SZA’s melismatic flourishes on “Garden (Say It Like Dat).”
The biggest treat of the night came early on, when SZA pulled out “Ghost in the Machine,” her joint song with indie rock favorite Phoebe Bridgers. There must have been something in the Pacific Northwest air — a region SZA professed her love for multiple times — as it was the first time she’s played it on tour since Bridgers joined her onstage at Madison Square Garden. There’d be no Seattle cameo from the hushed singer-songwriter on Thursday, but SZA harmonized beautifully with Bridgers’ recorded vocals, a lush sonic immersion as soothing as a hot bath after coming inside from a cold rain.
On the surface, some of the SOS Tour’s grittier dockside, stormy-sea production choices might seem bleaker than you’d expect for the seemingly festive occasion of a first run as a marquee arena act, fully stepping into pop music’s center stage. But the New Jersey-reared songsmith didn’t get there by shying away from the ugly side of life and love.
Recorded in one take, accidental smash “Kill Bill,” SZA’s first solo Top 10 hit, is an unfiltered revenge murder fantasy from a bitter ex lover — not exactly a feel-good drive-time bop, infectious hook or no. As the streaming numbers soared, pop radio picked it up, only snowballing the momentum that carried her into Climate Pledge Arena, where songs you could sob to alone instead made for a joyful communal experience.
“I want [the tour] to be smart and exhilarating and exhausting and exciting like a party, but also like a therapy session,” SZA recently told Consequence of Sound.
As a wave of middle fingers gleefully shot up during a cathartic “I Hate You” near the end of the night, it was safe to say: Mission accomplished.
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