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SZA MBA Berlin June 09 2023 025

SZA’s SOS tour is a spectacle with true intentions

18 June 2023, 15:00
Words by Mitch Stevens
Original Photography by Pedro Becerra

Ever since her emergence at the turn of the 2010s, New Jersey’s SZA has garnered a cult fanbase.

To me, cult fanbases don’t just represent those small pockets of the internet that gather around hyper-niche scenes and artists that see mainstream success as a pipe-dream. Cult fanbases align with a message; something within the fibre of their idol which they can apply to their own lifestyle, using their output as scripture to which they can live by. That devout following has shown up for SZA in spades. Her most recent album, SOS, spent ten weeks at the top of the Billboard charts; the most of any female artist this decade and the longest since Mariah Carey’s debut album in 1991. Not bad going for a relatively reclusive artist who doesn’t seem to give much away beyond a sporadic social media presence and select interviews.

That adulation is out in full force at the first London stop on her global tour in support of SOS at London’s O2 arena; merch queues are winding from multiple outlets inside and outside the venue, masses of followers have turned out early and pack out the venue’s exterior to as busy as I’ve ever seen it, and to contain one of the most defined demographics I’ve ever seen populate the 19,000 capacity space. Thousands of young women have arrived to worship at the altar of an artist who, given the age range of around 18-30, has provided the soundtrack for the majority of the ups and downs of their lives so far.

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Devotion is palpable from the opening notes of "PSA", with a rapture of screams threatening to drown out and incredibly resonant vocal performance from SZA throughout a two hour performance that largely draws from the tour’s namesake project. The show’s instantly cinematic approach to presentation is there from the outset, welcoming the audience to the SOS tour with opening credits marked across a mobile screen set up that eventually reveals SZA replicating the album’s artwork before diving into the ocean herself and headfirst into "Seek and Destroy", one of SOS’ more immediate cuts. What’s even more prevalent is how the transformation over time of SZA the performer; she’s constantly kinetic performing across highly choreographed and intentional movement over what is a constantly transitioning stage set up. Addressing the crowd for the first time, she claims that she “came here to have a fucking party, and relax” before welcoming Travis Scott to the stage for a rendition of "Love Galore", which of course inspires the exact opposite of relaxation from inside The O2. This also further bolsters just how far SZA has come in her decade-plus long career; an artist who started initially as a wealth of blogs’ hidden talent can now command sold out shows at an arena level, and also invite one of contemporary music’s biggest stars along for the ride as a supporting cast member.

A lot of the performance brings something new to the R&B blueprint set by Janet Jackson in the 90s, with SZA pulling for some truly stunning dance breaks and providing special moments for her watertight band - riffing with her guitarist atop a boat that stars as the focal point for her own journey across the show. It’s when she utilises all the disparate elements of the show at once however that the performance elevates itself once more. "F2F" is a definitive highlight, allowing her band to fully flourish among its Dawson’s Creek-cum-Blink 182-esque sonics, proving that she is not bound by the soul rendering R&B that she has made her signature. It’s for this reason however that the show suffers somewhat. After showing the audience glimpses of just how diverse her catalogue can be, SZA chooses to primarily stick to a singular sonic palette that doesn’t particularly feel groundbreaking and at points, fails to maintain the energy beyond show’s first half. At nearly two hours, the show does at times feel like a marathon, rather than a victory lap for an artist who has conquered the world on her own terms.

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This is however, the only criticism of a show that is near enough untouchable in terms of the level of performance and incredibly considered visual narrative that runs alongside it. Multiple screens play their part in telling the story of SZA on her own journey, navigating the waves of life and relationships and providing her own personal allegory for fans to relate to. By the time her own ship onstage crashes and forces her into a life raft that is elevated above the crowd, lit by a covertly erected lighthouse in the centre of the venue, SZA has excelled in the near impossible task of making an arena show feel truly intimate - somehow replicating the feeling of her being there with each individual fan as they traverse the sounds that have played a part in some of their life’s most defining moments.

In an era where artists within the pop and R&B space are doing more to fully immerse their fans in the fantastical environments that they imagine their music, SZA’s SOS tour stands out as a way to create a spectacle with true intention. Each transition into the next act of the show has been meticulously considered with the artist’s performance and the audience’s visceral reaction in mind. Beyonce may have the scale, Rosalia may have the abstraction, but SZA has the connection - which is arguably the most important factor when you write music this personal. Escapism is at its finest when it’s communal, and this performance felt like thousands of like minded people setting sail to escape a common set of problems, weathering the storm, and enjoying the seas of change together as the cult of SZA - one of R&B’s finest talents and one of music’s most elemental global forces.

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