If SZA was the main character in a movie about a woman who, say, gets stranded alone at sea, the end scene would likely find her blissfully embracing her new solitude. But such isolation is hard to come by when you’ve built a career off sleek R&B delineating heartache and insecurities with a razor-sharp bite, finding company with the girls who ask: “Would you still love me if I was a worm?”
We can infer this about SZA because we hear SZA. It’s no wonder pop’s most notorious introvert took five years to follow up her instant-classic debut Ctrl with the equally astonishing – if not more so – SOS. Back when she was touring the former album in 2017, she played to a crowd of 1,200 at New York’s Irving Plaza. Now on her “SOS Tour” (find remaining tickets here), she’s sold out two consecutive nights at Madison Square Garden, a feat that now seems inevitable to us considering how much SZA’s star has grown – and stayed bright – during the years in-between.
But if SZA was nervous ahead of her second show at the Garden on March 5th, she certainly didn’t show it. After an energetic opening set from Omar Apollo (whose dexterity in his own diverse pop mirrors that of SZA’s), the evening’s main attraction appeared onstage to replicate the Princess Diana-inspired artwork for SOS, sitting at the edge of a diving board surrounded by screens that created her ocean. And then – in some technical trickery that words can’t quite explain – SZA leapt into the water, and the opening credits of this “movie” flash across the backdrop.
For a woman who loves being in her own company, SZA has a remarkable knack for commanding a crowd of thousands. Obviously, she’s also a lover of film – “Kill Bill” and “Gone Girl” appear in the SOS tracklist, after all – and throughout the night, her maximalist, maritime-themed stage production was stunning enough to give Tarantino and Fincher some ideas.
The show is split up into three main acts: On a boat; shipwrecked in the middle of the ocean; underwater. It takes a lot to fill up the visual space of Madison Square Garden, but rest assured: Whether she’s laying like a mermaid to belt “Drew Barrymore” or effortlessly joining in on her backup dancers’ choreography, SZA is the captain of this ship. She both looked and sounded fantastic, keeping her audience completely engaged for the duration of the show.
Despite no surprise visits from Cardi B or Phoebe Bridgers, the setlist of SZA’s second night at Madison Square Garden reminds us just how exceptional her small discography is. The evening included performances of nearly every song on SOS and a handful of Ctrl highlights, along with renditions of her Kendrick Lamar collaboration “All the Stars” and her Doja Cat duet “Kiss Me More.” The exclusion of “Ghost in the Machine” was palpable, especially with Bridgers having made an appearance the night before, but the setlist otherwise prompted no low points in the evening’s energy.