CONCERT REVIEW: SZA triumphs over glitches on dazzling emotional voyage

Credit: Terence Rushin/State Farm Arena

Credit: Terence Rushin/State Farm Arena

Summer Walker and Lil Baby made surprise appearances at Atlanta stop.

With only two albums under her belt, SZA has established a piercing brand of relatable and vulnerable lyricism that magnifies even the smallest crevices of her feelings while prompting listeners to reflect and honor their own. It’s what makes her sophomore album “SOS,” her first in five years, a blockbuster. Released in December, “SOS” spent its first seven weeks at No. 1, which made it the longest consecutive No. 1 album released so far this year. As of this writing, the album has spent 10 non-consecutive weeks atop the Billboard chart, beating Usher’s 2004 diamond-certified “Confessions” to become the longest-running No. 1 R&B album of this century.

The album has matched records previously set by Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Adele and Taylor Swift. All eyes are on SZA now.

Touring while experiencing that record-breaking success can bring a mountain of expectations. And those expectations only multiply when you sell out your first-ever arena tour. At the Atlanta stop for her “SOS” tour on Tuesday night, the Grammy-winning singer and songwriter defied expectations and warmly greeted the anticipation by charting a prismatic, richly-layered journey that brought all of her emotions to life.

Credit: Terence Rushin/State Farm Arena

Credit: Terence Rushin/State Farm Arena

Her set during the State Farm Arena concert started with an unreleased track titled “PSA.” Donning a St. Louis Blues jersey and sitting on the edge of platform, SZA sang with the reassurance of a singer who knows she can overcome her problems while acknowledging the severity of them: “I always knew things would be just fine/ Oh, I always knew it’d get worse with time,” she sang in the closing verse. SZA seems to find the most solace and comfort while on the brink of danger. Perhaps it’s why she chose to be seated on a diving board on top of what’s ostensibly a large body of water for the “SOS” cover. SZA’s music ebbs and flows through her deep-seated emotions that feel like they should be private but blare brilliantly when said aloud.

She continues the nautical-themed voyage with “Seek and Destroy,” a performance so vibrant with choreography that it makes a song about a scorned partner’s fury sound warm and bubbly. SZA attacks the beginning of the concert with the ease of a veteran performer. But her ship quickly hit a bump during the start of the 2017 Travis Scott-assisted jam “Love Galore”: her sound goes out. Then, after going backstage to rectify the problem and returning to attempt the song again, her sound still doesn’t come on. The ordeal went on for at least 20 minutes — leaving some to wonder if the sound would come back at all. But for most, no sound wasn’t a problem. The crowd immediately (and loudly) continued the song as if they were SZA’s makeshift background singers.

That’s the beauty of creating vulnerable songs that are hyper-popular for an entire generation: the fans will proudly have your back when needed just as your music has had theirs.

After the sound gets restored, SZA seamlessly continues the rest of the concert as if there were no technical difficulties (”Let’s try this [expletive] again,” she calmly declares before transitioning into “Broken Clocks”). An intricate, seaside-inspired stage design (fitting for a former marine biology major), multiple wardrobe changes and groovy dance numbers illuminated the 33-song setlist. A cover of Erykah Badu’s classic “Bag Lady” reiterates how SZA is a student of the Black women that came before her. A punk-tinged ending of “Prom” further conveys how she’s emerged as a pioneer for genre-bending Black women artists who’ll come after her.

The concert also featured guest appearances from Atlanta-based artists like Summer Walker, who performed alongside SZA for their 2021 collaboration “No Love,” and Lil Baby, who performed “Forever.”

One of the main highlights of the night arrived when SZA performed the psychedelic track “Low,”. The stage transforms into a boat traveling during a storm that matches the thunderous intensity of the song’s eerie ruminations on being a sneaky link (”If you see me out in public,/You don’t know me, keep it/silent/In the bedroom, I be screamin’, but outside, I keep it quiet”). Another striking moment appears when SZA, wearing a fluffy yellow dress that’s more fitting for a gala, glides onto what appears to be an inflatable boat and wafts through the crowd toward a light house while singing “Supermodel” and “Special,” songs that shine for exposing the depths of SZA’s insecurities. But as she got closer to the light house, she smiled wider and formally greeted the audience, signaling SZA’s inherent ability to soothe inner turmoil with public comfort.

Credit: Terence Rushin/State Farm Arena

Credit: Terence Rushin/State Farm Arena

For the concert’s final quarter, SZA quickly ran through the anthemic bars of “SOS,” the blissful soul of “Snooze,” the rage-filled “Kill Bill” and the scathing pop of “I Hate U” before transitioning into the fan-favorite “The Weekend.” The concert ends the same way it started — SZA sitting on the edge of a platform — but this time she’s wearing a red dress and singing “Good Days,” a track that seeks peace in uncertainty. It feels like a triumphant conclusion for an artist who has openly shared her anxieties and struggles with low self-esteem. Even amid those insecurities, she seems more accepting of herself on the good days and bad days.

Several wardrobe changes, moving stage sets, new choreography and multiple technical difficulties in front of one of your biggest audiences yet can be a lot to manage for an artist on their first arena tour, but at no point does SZA seem a bit disheveled. Instead, she wades in the discomfort. She floats above the chaos. And the crowd was with her every step of the way.

“Atlanta, you’re so real for not quitting on me,” she said at the end of the concert before previewing the video for “Low.” “I’m sorry about any technical difficulties. I care so much. Atlanta mattered a lot to me because I count this as the biggest city, personally. It’s literally New York (and) Atlanta — same energy, same level — but better energy, actually.”