Mild asthma struck just a few songs into the R&B singer-songwriter’s Friday night set at the First Avenue Mainroom, and she asked if anyone in the house could help. Albuterol made its way up to the stage, SZA nonchalantly took a hit, and, after this display of sisterly camaraderie, the show went on.
Live, SZA was a picture of nonchalance, stylishly baggy in a loose plaid dress and Chuck’s, her reddish natural curls uncontrolled and active as she moved with a free-limbed, unchoreographed, yet graceful flounce across the stage. Behind her, the title of her new album, CTRL, was spelled out, the letters silhouetted in neon, shifting from red to yellow to white throughout the show.
SZA’s lyrics are a bit more emotionally fraught. A St. Louis-born Jersey girl who hooked up with Kendrick Lamar’s TDE label and finally released her official full-length this year after a series of promising mixtapes, Solána Rowe writes songs filled with a regretful awareness that penises, while enjoyable in and of themselves, tend to be attached to men, and that the best dicks often belong to the shadiest dudes. She confronts this reality with an exasperated but never bitter wit (“Picking up a penny with a press-on is/ Easier than holding you down”), expressing a yearning for intimacy that never comes off as clingy or needy even when she frets that it does.
The show started, as CTRL does, with SZA’s guitarist strumming the wiry, unaccompanied intro to “Supermodel,” an it’s-not-me-it’s-you revenge-fuck anthem (“I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy”), its vocal lines wending upwards and floating downward, a typical SZA melodic trick. Her three-piece live band (the guitarist doubled on keyboards) ably recreated the stripped down, idiosyncratic synth textures of CTRL, which fizz with an electronic froth yet also house the echoes of dubby ghosts as a beat glides and dips lithely.
SZA is assertive yet dreamy – she doesn’t go in for hold-my-earrings reality TV showboating, but new-agey incense-huffing spaciness isn’t her speed either. Whether cramming to understand baffling male psychology on “Love Galore” (the Travis Scott duet that’s blown up on Go 95.3) or discussing what she’s called “time-sharing a man” on “The Weekend,” SZA richly shifts between emotions – frustration, blame, sadness, defiance – the way actual humans tend to when their lives unexpectedly suck. The line “I just do it my way” on “Broken Clocks” rings out with an honest balance, all at once a boast, a regret, and a simple statement of fact.
The drama’s mostly in the lyrics, not in the delivery. SZA’s voice doesn’t overpower with divatastic brawn, and it’s only faintly serrated with audible pain. There’s sadness in her voice, but it’s expressed in a lush, pouty jazz phrasing that’s intimate without drifting into inward reverie. When she broke into her litany of “I’m sorry”s on the song “Drew Barrymore,” you could hear a kind of triumphant heartbreak in her voice, as though rejection was helping her discover her strongest personal qualities.
SZA’s show ended, as CTRL does, with more muted electric strumming, leading into the self-defining “20 Something,” a self-aware call out to her contemporaries that nicely contextualizes her romantic troubles as a stage she’s going through. Maybe she’ll grow out of it, the song suggests, without anticipating what she’ll grow into. I’ll be listening to find out.
The crowd: The coolest, most fashionable women in the Twin Cities. Young, racially diverse, amped, and loud as hell, with good vibes all around. They knew every last lyric and they let you know it. Pre-show, they exploded into a “Bodak Yellow” rapalong like a rowdy school bus on a class trip.
Doves in the Wind
Garden (Say It Like Dat)
See more photos of SZA at First Ave here