At the Forum, the enthralling confessions of SZA
Floating above the audience in a lifeboat that slowly moved from one end of the Kia Forum to the other, SZA performed her song “Special” on Wednesday night as a rotating searchlight shot out from a replica of a lighthouse below her.
“Special,” from the 33-year-old singer and songwriter’s smash “SOS” album, is a gut-punch of an acoustic ballad about giving the best of yourself to the wrong person, and here the searchlight — which roved the capacity crowd, illuminating each face it passed over — was an apt metaphor for the way SZA’s music works: She puts all the detailed complexities of a messy personal life, with its betrayals and disappointments and compromises, into a highly focused beam that somehow makes her listeners feel uniquely seen.
“I used to be special, but you made me hate me,” she sang as thousands merged their voices with hers — a diarist but also a beacon.
The emotional acuity of SZA’s music, which she began releasing about a decade ago, is all the more impressive given her vast stylistic range. “SOS,” which has logged 10 weeks atop the Billboard 200 chart and is already a front-runner for an album of the year nomination at next year’s Grammy Awards, veers among sleek R&B, boom-bappy hip-hop, delicate folk and surging pop-punk; as a singer (and sometimes a rapper), she’s flexible enough to match whatever arrangement she and her producers devise, spitting words with palpable disgust one minute then cooing sensually the next. Melodically, too, she’s all over the place, as though repeating a phrase precisely had never occurred to her. (One indication of how much time fans have invested with “SOS” was their ability to sing along at the Forum with a tune like “Blind,” in which her vocal keeps darting in unexpected directions.)
Yet SZA’s lyrical intimacy and her conversational tone ensure that she never sounds like anyone but herself.
The singer-songwriter took six years between album releases, a lifetime in the streaming era. The result? She’s now one of pop’s biggest and boldest stars.
Wednesday’s sold-out concert, the first of two in Inglewood to wrap SZA’s North American arena tour behind “SOS,” showcased her versatility with a mix of songs from the new LP and her 2017 debut, “Ctrl,” as well as a couple of the many collaborations — including her and Kendrick Lamar’s “All the Stars” (from the first “Black Panther” movie) and her and Doja Cat’s Grammy-winning “Kiss Me More” — that transformed SZA between albums from a beloved cult figure to a major pop presence. To wit: Among the celebrities in the house were Adele, Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, Olivia Rodrigo and Pedro Pascal.
SZA’s staging carried through on the nautical theme of “SOS,” with a prop cargo ship, a giant inflatable anchor and an opening number she performed with her legs dangling off a diving board as on the album’s cover; behind her, a wall of video screens showed ocean waters that started calm then gradually grew stormy.
For “Seek & Destroy” and “Notice Me” she wore an oversized jersey and baggy jeans and did hard-hitting choreography with help from four dancers; for “Prom” she changed into a black top with billowing sleeves — very Stevie Nicks — to wander around the deck of the cargo ship as her small but muscular electric-funk band chewed on the song’s Prince-ish groove. “SOS’” title track was ferocious, SZA rapping each line like a boxer circling the ring, while “F2F” shed light on the often-hidden role that Black women have played in alternative rock.
“Smoking on a Backwood ’cause I miss my ex / Now I’m ovulating and I need rough sex,” she sang over crunchy Warped Tour guitars — just one gloriously frank admission in a night full of them.
On Friday, at the kickoff of her Eras tour, Swift performed a whopping 44 songs from all 10 of her studio albums, parceled out in distinct chapters.
The only drawback of the concert, which moved almost too quickly through its 90 minutes, was the lack of banter from SZA, who said next to nothing to the audience outside her songs. For all the ease of expression in her music, the real-life experience of stardom has never come easily to the singer; just this week she tweeted that her “anxiety is worse than it’s ever been” and that she “desperately need[s] grace and space.”
Of course, the ingenuity of SZA’s art — the skill required to create its deep relatability — leads us to want ever more from her: more personality, more background, more of a sense of where it all comes from. She gave a taste from that lifeboat as she introduced one of “SOS’” highlights, a breathtakingly honest breakup tune called “Nobody Gets Me” in which she couldn’t seem less proud of that fact.
She’d written it, she told the crowd, about “this guy I almost got engaged to, then he blocked me on everything and I started my life over.” The place erupted in cheers.
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