Review: SZA’s ‘SOS Tour’ rides the high seas, finally making it to South Philadelphia
“Philly!,” she exclaimed, “I’m sorry I wasn’t here,” the singer said to an arena full of fans, referring to her postponed March show and cancelled Made in America appearance.
SZA began her voyage at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday sitting high above the stage, on the edge of a diving board against video backdrops that made it appear like a vast expanse of water.
The tableau, inspired by a 1997 photo of Princess Diana, was recreated on the cover of SOS, the pop star’s second album which topped the Billboard charts for 10 consecutive weeks after it was released in December.
At that time, SZA — born Solána Imani Rowe and raised in Maplewood in North Jersey (graduating from the same high school as Ms. Lauryn Hill, who plays the Wells Fargo on Oct. 23) — said that she chose the image of Diana “because I loved how isolated she felt.”
The show was opened by 18-year-old R&B balladeer D4vd (pronounced “David”) who had much of the mostly female, mid-teens-to-early-30s crowd singing along to his hit “Emotional Homicide.”
So is SZA lost at sea? Hardly. On the contrary, since she emerged with her breakout album Ctrl in 2017, she’s skillfully navigated her way as a confident genre-splicer, broadly classified as an R&B artist but equally at home with pop-punk, electronic, and rap.
That’s particularly true on the 23-song, never-dull SOS. Songs from the album made up the bulk of the brisk, creatively staged and nautically-themed 1 hour, 40 minute show. It included hits by Kendrick Lamar and Doja Cat that SZA has guested on, as well as a cover of Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady.”
But what’s more impressive than the way SZA moves between musical stylesis how her songs convey a broad emotional range, moving from anguish and exultation to self-doubt and rage.
SZA doesn’t fit the “singer-songwriter” stereotype. You won’t find her sitting on a stool strumming an acoustic guitar. But she makes music that is often spare and subtle, with quiet spaces between the notes. “Sad girl energy has always been my energy,” she told the New York Times this year.
And that interior approach strikes a chord. Before the show, I was talking with a woman who was bummed to not have tickets. “I love her,” she said. “She’s so calm.”
That peaceful quality presented a challenge — and ultimately made for a triumph — at the Wells Fargo Center, where the “SOS” tour finally arrived on a rescheduled date of a show originally slated for March. Her Made in America headlining set was also canceled. (SZA briefly apologized at the start on Tuesday and then carried on.)
Connecting with intimate music in a cavernous arena, of course, is made much easier when most everybody in the audience knows the words to every song.
And that was largely the case on Tuesday as SZA, who’s 33, grappled with her own personal evolution and adulthood in ways that resonated with her fans.
“I’m used to feeling alone, I thought that I’d let you know,” she sang in “Special.” And in “Gone Girl” — which cleverly nods at Hall & Oates’ 1973 hit “She’s Gone” - she sang about her need to grow as a human, leaving former selves behind.
In a season of oversize concerts that’s included Beyoncé riding high above Lincoln Financial on a silver horse and Pink ziplining across Citizens Bank Park, SZA delivered the goods with her own uniquely compelling high-flying spectacle.
Creatively speaking, SZA — who briefly studied marine biology at Delaware State University in Dover — put her aquatic imagination to work in the tour design. Using a series of backdrops and video screens, a variety of optical illusions were created.
After the second song, “Seek & Destroy,” the singer seemed to fall off her diving board and splash into the ocean on stage. Wow, did that really happen?
No. And neither did the barge, on which SZA, and her four dancers and highly adaptable band named CTRL performed, break apart. The CGI seas got dangerously rough, but it sure looked cool when it did.
Later, in an “Under the Sea” segment, the set included a giant anchor, and sharks and other creatures seemed to swim by. But the most intriguingly odd and dramatically gripping section of the show came when SZA — in a hot-pink two-piece princess dress — climbed onto a life raft that carried her out above the crowd.
A lighthouse that could have been imported from the coast of Maine rose off the back of the arena floor and shone its beam on the star of the show. She didn’t fall off the raft, and neither did she miss a beat as she sang about love and alienation and the all-important need to be understood, whether by a soul mate, or her audience.
“I’m only like myself when I’m with you,” she sang, seeking self-definition in front of 20,000 fans. “Nobody gets me - you do.”
Here’s SZA’s set list from the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on Sept. 26, 2023.
“Seek & Destroy”
“Ghost in the Machine”
“Smoking on my Ex Pack”
“All the Stars”
“Garden (Say It Like Dat)”
“Doves In The Wind”
“Nobody Gets Me”
“Kiss Me More”
“I Hate U”