SZA Lives Up to All the Anticipation as She Launches Her ‘SOS’ Tour
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The Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio, was flooded with millennials and Gen-Zers on Feb. 21, all buzzing in excitement for the first night of SZA’s SOS tour. Advertisements for a “Seek & Destroy” speciality cocktail — made with pink lemonade, Tito’s, and cotton candy — were posted throughout the arena. Fans flocked for tour merch, poring over psychedelic graphic tees, chrome-emblazoned caps, and a purple-and-tan tote bag made by Los Angeles fashion company Online Ceramics. Less than three months after the long-awaited release of SZA’s second album, her performance would differ from what the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter has offered in the five years since Ctrl. In fact, the concert showed that her mainstream presence is larger than ever, and the first stop on her 17-date arena tour — which will run through late March with shows in D.C., New York, Atlanta, Seattle, and L.A. — lived up to all its anticipation.
No longer allowing genres to define her, the 33-year-old artist put her wide-ranging creativity into overdrive on SOS. It’s an album that explores unabashed vulnerability, where the singer bares thoughts of revenge (“Kill Bill,” “Seek & Destroy,” “Low”) and amorous longing (“Snooze,” “Nobody Gets Me”), and even extends a kiss-off freestyle (“Smoking on My Ex Pack”). At 23 songs, the album delves into electronic, folk, and hip-hop sounds, all while remaining harmonious to SZA’s soulful origins. Now, SZA continues to set charting records; to date, SOS has officially spent nine nonconsecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, being the first woman in seven years to do so since Adele did so with 25. The stakes have been raised for her career, and she came to Columbus to show she could meet them and more.
The show, produced by Live Nation, was an equal tribute to SZA’s early naïveté and her more recent multi-week chart-topping stardom. The night marked her first time performing at the 25-year-old arena on the Ohio State University’s campus. The last time she headlined a show in Ohio, for the 53-date Ctrl tour in December 2017, she stopped by Cleveland’s 2,500-capacity House of Blues. On that night, she brought soulful St. Louis rapper Smino and Chicago songbird Ravyn Lenae as supporting acts, and performed for a sold-out crowd that included former Cleveland Cavaliers Lebron James, J.R. Smith, Channing Fyre, and Dwyane Wade, the latter accompanied by wife, actress Gabrielle Union.
A little over five years later, she reigned over Ohio State’s 18,800-capacity premier multi-purpose arena, and the only celebrities in sight were the performers. Opening the night was Omar Apollo, whose full-length debut album, Ivory, broke him to a new level of fame last spring and won him a Best New Artist Grammy nomination. Backed by a guitarist, bassist and drummer, the Indiana-raised Mexican-American artist headed straight into his set without an introduction. Later, he’d admit that anxiety almost overwhelmed him. “Y’all wanna know something? It’s my first time playing in an arena,” he told the crowd. Midway through the set, the 25-year-old gave his first performance of his new track “3 Boys,” as the stage glowed with a cerulean hue and crowd members waved their phone flashlights in the air.
After a 20-minute intermission, where audience members raved over Ice Spice’s “In Ha Mood” and Lil Uzi Vert’s “I Just Wanna Rock,” a visual thunderstorm brewed on a three-sided box screen concealing the stage. Replicating the Princess Diana-inspired SOS album cover, SZA sat in isolation on the edge of a white diving board, wearing a jersey-like “S” sweatshirt reading “Yemaya” on the back, baggy jeans, and black combat boots. Opening with “PSA,” SZA then plunged into the sea, ascending to deliver “Seek & Destroy” with four background dancers.
“Columbus, what the fuck is good? My first arena tour ever,” SZA said after singing “Notice Me.” After those three SOS selections, SZA took it back to 2017 with “Love Galore,” all smiles and prancing about as fans sang Travis Scott’s verse. For an artist who often seemed hesitant to release her new LP due to record-label setbacks, SZA fed off of Columbus’ energy with glee.
A nautical theme persisted throughout the night. For “Shirt,” a puddled blue orb traced SZA’s footsteps. When she ran offstage for an outfit change, an underwater submarine visual diverted to a tracker that seemingly tried to locate SZA. The video turned into a black-and-white behind-the-scenes look at SZA preparing for the stage, changing, getting a touch-up, grabbing a new microphone, and rapping “Smoking On My Ex Pack.” The screen lifted to show a wooden pier and life-sized sailboat, SZA’s dancers on deck while the singer stood atop the ship for her 2018 Kendrick Lamar collaboration “All the Stars.”
For a moment, the first night of the SOS tour nearly got the best of SZA, who briefly forgot the lyrics to “Garden (Say It Like Dat),” and held an index finger to her pursed lips to laugh it off. As dancers exited the ship, guitarist Ari O’Neal gave an electrifying solo while SZA knelt before her, soaking up the vigor. During “F2F,” the two tossed their hair in unison for an adrenalizing Black girl mosh. To decompress from the punk-rock SOS highlight, SZA laid in front of the boat, singing 2017’s “Warm Enough.”
The back-and-forth between Ctrl and SOS lasted the nearly two hours of SZA’s oceanic production, giving both longtime and newbie fans room to discover the breadth of her discography. Onscreen and projected upon the stage floor, graphics pointed to a turbulent sea during “Low.” Dancers thrashed atop the sailboat, but SZA escaped, taking to the sky in a life raft. Wearing a yellow tulle gown — her third outfit change of the night — SZA gently sang “Supermodel” while soaring to the arena’s opposite end, where a lighthouse waited for her. Tossing “flowers” below, she acknowledged the crowd before singing “Nobody Gets Me.” “I wrote this song about a terrible fucking breakup,” she said to the crowd’s roars. “It changed the way I see everything, but I’m better for it.”
Returning to a live-action backdrop showing that she weathered the storm, SZA rolled into “Gone Girl,” waving to fans while in flight, but making her descent to the stage. Switching to a motor jacket and red biker pants, SZA powered through “SOS,” her parts of Doja Cat collaboration “Kiss Me More,” and her guitar-led ballad “Love Language.” Despite the show’s metaphorical healing process, SZA reminded the audience of her savage ways, recreating her “Kill Bill” music video — and the actual 2003 Quentin Tarantino film — while swinging a spiked ball and chain. For “I Hate U,” the artist sang directly into an onstage video camera facing her, as if she was addressing someone outside the Schottenstein Center.
Ending the segment on a sultry note with “The Weekend,” SZA disappeared once more while a serene daybreak-to-nighttime transition emerged on the screen. Back at the dock, she graced the diving board wearing a feathery fuschia gown to give a “Good Days” encore — signaling she’d found her path home to leave chaos behind.
“Seek & Destroy”
“Bag Lady” (Erykah Badu cover)
“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”