Words by Zara Irshad, Photos by Angelina Dyrnaes
A modern-day lonely hearts club, R&B singer SZA turned the Viejas Arena into one giant group therapy session on Monday night. Who else could get a crowd of nearly 13,000 college students to turn up on a Monday night during exam season? The sold-out show marked SZA’s first San Diego performance since 2017, when she opened for Kendrick Lamar at the North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre.
Her 28-song set consisted almost entirely of tracks from her sophomore album SOS which released back in December, in addition to a handful of throwbacks from Ctrl and a sultry cover of Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady.”
The pensive R&B singer (born Solána Rowe) has been making music since the early 2010s, signing to Top Dawg Entertainment in 2013 and releasing a slew of EPs under the stage name SZA. She spent years co-writing tracks for big name artists like Beyoncé and Rihana, despite years of teasing, her debut album Ctrl didn’t drop until 2017. Full of introspection and angst, the album felt like it came straight from the pages of her diary, etching its place in the hearts of 20-somethings trying to navigate their way through the catharsis of love, loss, and growth.
Five long years after the release of Ctrl, SOS immediately launched to the top of the Billboard charts upon its release, earning an 8.7 Pitchfork rating and soundtracking numerous TikTok trends. The 23-track album contains features from Phoebe Bridgers and Don Toliver and encapsulates the duality of heartbreak: the dwelling and self-doubt that arise, but also the strength and confidence that are regained. SOS shows a new side to SZA’s artistry, venturing outside of the sullen R&B tracks that launched her to fame and experimenting with rock, hip-hop and country sounds throughout the project.
Alt-pop singer Omar Apollo started the night with an eight-track set full of songs from his debut album Ivory that was released last spring as well as a few throwbacks from his earlier projects. He played to a half-empty venue, with fans slowly trickling into the arena with arms full of merch and nachos. Nonetheless, the energy was at a 10. Fans were out of their seats for most of his set, waving their phone lights in the air during the stripped-back and vulnerable song “Petrified” and screaming the cathartic bridge of his hit single “Evergreen.”
A drummer, guitarist, and bassist were shrouded in shadows at each corner of the stage (where they remained for the entire night), leaving Apollo alone on stage in front of a vast screen that flipped between vibrant visuals and close-ups of his face. Dressed in a backwards baseball cap and dark baggy jeans, he looked like he belonged in a 90s boy band and commanded the room with a fitting presence. His charisma took center stage as he fed off of audience energy, giggling between tracks while reading fans’ signs.
The crowd was a sea of college-aged friend groups, leather-clad, covered in glitter, and most with a drink in hand. The arena was buzzing after Apollos set, with the anticipation for SZA’s set building as the arena filled up. A few fans began twerking in the aisles between seats to the pre-show playlist packed with modern-day club classics like Ice Spice’s “Gangsta Boo” and Bad Bunny’s “Tití me Preguntó,” while the rest of the venue hyped them up with cheers and hollers; it felt like one gigantic dance circle.
When the arena lights cut out and the instrumentals for SZA’s unreleased track “PSA” began to fill the arena, the noise of the crowd only intensified. As the artist started singing, an LED screen spanning the length of the stage slowly rose to reveal her sitting at the edge of a diving board, feet dangling in the air, in front of a floor-to-ceiling backdrop of slow-moving waves. A recreation of the SOS album cover, which drew inspiration from 1997 paparazzi pictures of Princess Diana, the scene concluded with the wide LED screen moving down to cover SZA again, as a digitized version of her was seen diving off of the board and into the waves.
SZA performing at Viejas Arena. Photos by Angelina Dyrnaes.
Sticking with the nautical theme of the album, the screen rose again moments later to reveal the first set of the night: the deck of a boat. As SZA and four dancers ran onto the stage, the intro to “Seek and Destroy” began to play. This first act of the show felt heavily theatrical, with SZA performing meticulous choreography while prancing around the set with her dancers.
This ultimately caused her vocals to waver and weaken due to shortness of breath, and made the opening portion of her set to feel slightly distant and impersonal.
Five songs in, she slowed things down for the R&B soul track “Broken Clocks,” letting the dancers fall into the background and walking around the stage singing to passionate fans who screamed the words back to her. Her voice was clear and strong during this part of the show, while she expressed her passion and pain through her enunciation and expressions. This performance and the following medley of SOS tracks—which she performed solo in front of the digital screen—began to recover the intimacy and authenticity that many fans have come to expect from SZA. This closeness with the audience intensified as the night progressed.
When she disappeared behind the screen at the end of the medley of SOS tracks, the studio version of the bold and rap-influenced “Smoking on my ex pack” filled the arena, and a live feed of someone behind the camera walking around backstage flashed across the screen. The camera neared SZA, who was changing into a billowy black dress in real time. A grin plastered on her face, she lip synced along to the track as her team touched up her hair and makeup and secured her into her outfit. She gave a thumbs up and a wink as her mic was handed back to her at the end of the track, shaking out her sleeves as she re-entered the stage. Such a small moment of transparency held so much significance for SZA, showing that despite her rapidly growing audience, connection with her fans and emotion within her music still remain central to her artistry.
The tracks that SZA performed showcased her range and growth over the course of her career, from the passionate pop-rock track “F2F,” during which she was flipping her hair and singing on her knees, to the brutally honest “Drew Barymore,” that she performed sitting still on the floor reaching out to the crowd.
SZA performing on the SOS Tour in San Diego. Photos by Angelina Dyrnaes.
One of the most poignant moments of the show came toward the end, when she spent 15 minutes floating through the crowd on an orange life raft as she sang stripped down versions of some of her more personal tracks like “Supermodel” and “Nobody Gets Me.” An ethereal sight, she leaned over the edge of the platform sprinkling confetti over the crowd as she drifted toward a giant glowing lighthouse at the far end of the stadium. Blue hazy lights cast over the stadium seats gave the illusion of water, making the crowd feel as though it was looking up at her from undersea.
The set design and production level throughout the show was incredible, elevating the story of heartbreak and self-discovery that unfolded throughout the production. From the initial catharsis of love during the first few acts (illustrated through the sinking boat set and the accompanying oceanic visuals) to the rediscovery and empowerment of self that the third and fourth acts convey with the liferaft and giant anchor sets, the craft behind the show enhanced the visceral essence of SZAs music. The show ended with an encore performance of “Good Days,” a track initially released as a single and eventually included in the SOS tracklist when the album was released. Assuming the same position atop the diving board that she had taken at the very start of the show, SZA sang the track staring off into the distance, alone on stage. This time, instead of deep and menacing blue waves on the screen, there was a radiant orange sunset, beautiful and hopeful, just like the rebirth and renewal that she sings about.
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