Floating above the audience in a lifeboat that moved slowly from one end of the Kia Forum to the other, SZA performed her song “Special” on Wednesday night as a rotating searchlight shot from a replica lighthouse below her.
“Special,” from the 33-year-old singer/songwriter’s hit album “SOS,” is a punchy acoustic ballad about giving your best to the wrong person, and here the spotlight, sweeping the capacity of the crowd. , illuminating every face he passed, was an apt metaphor for the way SZA’s music works: it puts all the detailed complexities of a messy personal life, with its betrayals, disappointments, and compromises, into a highly focused beam that somehow makes your listeners feel uniquely seen.
“I used to be special, but you made me hate myself,” she sang as thousands merged their voices with hers: a diary but also a beacon.
The emotional sharpness of SZA’s music, which he began publishing about a decade ago, is all the more impressive given its wide stylistic range. “SOS,” which has been at the top of the Billboard 200 for 10 weeks and is already a favorite for an album of the year nomination at next year’s Grammy Awards, veers between sleek R&B, boom-bappy hip-hop, delicate folk and emerging music. pop punk; as a singer (and sometimes a rapper), she’s flexible enough to adapt to whatever arrangement she and her producers come up with, spitting out words with palpable disgust one minute and then sensually cooing the next. Melodically, too, she’s all over the place, as if repeating a phrase precisely never occurred to her. (An indication of how much time fans have invested in “SOS” was her ability to sing on the set to a tune like “Blind,” in which her voice keeps darting in unexpected directions.)
However, SZA’s lyrical intimacy and conversational tone ensure that she never sounds like anyone but herself.
Wednesday’s sold-out concert, the first of two in Inglewood to conclude SZA’s North American arena tour behind “SOS,” showcased her versatility with a mix of songs from the new LP and her 2017 debut, “Ctrl,” as well as a couple of the many collaborations, including her and Kendrick Lamar’s “All the Stars” (from the first “Black Panther” movie) and her and Doja Cat’s Grammy-winning “Kiss Me More,” which transformed SZA between albums from a beloved cult figure to a major pop presence. Namely: among the celebrities of the house were Adele, Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, Olivia Rodrigo and Pedro Pascal.
SZA’s staging continued the nautical theme of “SOS,” with a prop cargo ship, a giant inflatable anchor, and an opening number that she performed with her legs dangling from a diving board just like on the album cover; behind her, a wall of video screens showed ocean waters that started out calm and then gradually turned stormy.
For “Seek & Destroy” and “Notice Me” she wore an oversized T-shirt and baggy jeans and did some hard-hitting choreography with the help of four dancers; for “Prom” she changed into a black top with billowy sleeves—very Stevie Nicks—to stroll the deck of the cargo ship while her small but muscular electric funk band munched on Prince’s beat from the song. The title track “SOS” was fierce, SZA rapping each line like a boxer circling the ring, while “F2F” shed light on the often hidden role black women have played in alternative rock.
“Smokin’ on a Backwood ’cause I miss my ex/Now I’m ovulating and I need rough sex,” she sang over the crunching guitars of the Warped Tour, just one gloriously candid admission in a night filled with them.
The only downside to the concert, which moved almost too fast throughout its 90 minutes, was the lack of banter from SZA, who said almost nothing to the audience outside of his songs. For all the ease of expression in her music, the real-life experience of stardom has never been easy for the singer; Earlier this week she tweeted that his “anxiety is worse than ever” and that he “is in desperate need of grace and space.”
Of course, the ingenuity of SZA’s art, the skill required to create her deep identification, leads us to want more and more of her: more personality, more background, more sense of where it all comes from. She gave a taste of that lifeboat when she delivered one of the highlights of “SOS,” an incredibly honest breakup tune called “Nobody Gets Me” in which she couldn’t seem less proud of that fact.
She had written it, she told the crowd, about “this guy I almost got engaged to, then he blocked everything from me and I started my life all over again.” The venue erupted in applause.