SZA‘s five-year absence certainly made fans’ hearts grow fonder on record, as last December’s SOS album enjoys a nine-week (and counting) residency at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. And that’s translating to the live stage, too.
The just-launched SOS North American Tour from Billboard‘s Woman of the Year rolled into Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena on Friday night (Feb. 24) for its third show, a honed and sleek spectacle before a packed house of about 15,000 ecstatic SZA heads who hadn’t seen the star in more than four years. It’s a step up from the theaters the singer (real name: Solana Imani Rowe) was playing last time out, but she came armed with the music and visuals to validate what’s rapidly become a genre-straddling iconic status during the interim.
Best of all, SZA’s new show managed to sidestep the pitfalls that undermine so many other pop diva expositions. She deftly worked a whopping 31 songs — from her two studio albums, with some choice covers and obscure tracks — into the 90-minute set, but they never felt rushed or shoehorned. The costume changes (six total) were nimbly executed without lengthy speed-bump interludes.
The conceptual focus was strong, and SZA and company — three musicians tucked on the stage sides, four dancers and plenty of pre-recorded augmentation (included guest singers) — recreated the tunes with a smooth and convincing precision, rooted primarily in the chill ambience that’s SZA’s stock-in-trade.
The net result was a fat-free concert that maintained momentum and kept the surprises from start to finish. Taking off from the SOS album cover, the show opened with “PSA,” one of 17 of the new set’s tracks on the setlist, as a phalanx of video screens rose to reveal SZA sitting on a diving board above the stage, with an ocean of water projected behind her before she “dove” (via projection) and emerged on floor level with a sinewy “Seek & Destroy.” The singer then took the crowd through a journey, starting with a seaside pier setting for “Notice Me,” “Love Galore,” a short rendition of Erykah Badu‘s “Bag Lady” that segued into “Blind” and more.
After a quick break that included live footage of SZA making a costume change while singing “Smoking on My Ex Pack,” the stage transformed into a full-size fishing trawler that gave the dancers multiple levels to perform their routines. SZA made her way through “All the Stars” (her Kendrick Lamar collaboration from Black Panther: The Album) “Prom” and “Garden (Say It Like Dat)” before seas got rough, with hi-def visual effects, during forceful performances of “F2F” (with guitarist Ari O’ Neal rocking on deck), “Drew Barrymore” and “Doves in the Wind.” A throbbing “Low” then took the Good Ship SZA down to Davey Jones’ Locker with SZA performing an impressive split and full back-bend while O’Neal soloed.
SZA later emerged in outfit number three, singing acoustic renditions of “Supermodel,” Lizzo‘s “Special” and “Nobody Gets me” while riding a life raft above the audience, towards a lighthouse inflated just behind the soundboard. “I’m really, really grateful to be here with y’all to sing these songs about a breakup,” she said in a rare moment of dialogue with the crowd.
“Gone Girl” took her back to the stage, where the SZA crew played a few songs — Doja Cat’s “Kiss Me More,” “Love Language” and a particularly soulful “Snooze” — on the ocean “floor,” in front of a giant anchor and images of jellyfish, sharks and other sea creatures streaming by. An assertive “Kill Bill,” meanwhile, was accompanied by silhouetted images of the dancers, swords ‘n’ all, fighting behind the screens.
Rather than close with a bang, SZA finished smooth but with power, particularly on “I Hate U” before a vibey “The Weekend” closed the main show. “Good Days,” with SZA back on the diving board where she started, above now-calm waters, served as the lone encore. She did not have much to say during the night, but the songs and the staging said everything and delivered a message that she’s truly made a next-level step in her career.
The SOS North American Tour visits Toronto on Saturday (Feb. 25) and has 15 more dates slated, wrapping with a pair of shows on March 22-23 at the Kia Forum in Inglewood, Calif.
See SZA’s Detroit setlist below.
“Seek & Destroy”
“Bag Lady” (Erykah Badu cover)
“Smoking on My Ex Pack”
“All the Stars”
“Garden (Say It Like Dat)”
“Doves in the Wind”
“Nobody Gets Me”
“Kiss Me More” (Doja Cat cover)
“I Hate U”