With YG Tut, Raw Elementz and Tommy Swisher
South Side Music Hall, Dallas
Saturday, July 11, 2015
If you headed to SZA's show at South Side Music Hall on Saturday hoping to figure out what musical category she belongs in, you probably came away disappointed. The short answer: SZA belongs in her own category. The New Jersey native's mix of jazz, R&B, soul, hip-hop and electronica has garnered her comparisons to Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, and her Dallas debut only served to reinforce that hers is a Swiss army knife-like arsenal of musical weapons.
SZA is a true overnight success story. Only a few short years ago, she was a college dropout working odd jobs just to feed herself. Today she's a rising star on the respected Top Dawg Entertainment roster, with her latest album, 2014's Z, making it to the top 40 on the Billboard Top 200 and to No. 9 on the R&B charts. Her abstract storytelling, full of ruminations on sexuality, nostalgia and issues with abandonment, has already become a trademark.
Growing up Orthodox Muslim with a very traditional set of parents, SZA’s approach to her work is grounded in the elements of her childhood and early life, and it helps explain her versatility as a performer. In interviews she speaks about how she grew up listening to jazz at a very young age—Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and the like. She also draws a lot of her influence from artistic forces outside of music, like movie producers, dancers and even theatrical artists.
But Dallas hadn't caught a glimpse of her live and in person yet. The opening acts had all finished by 11 p.m. and the crowd, its anticipation at a fever pitch, chanted “SZA! SZA! SZA!” To hold the crowd at bay, the DJ played nostalgic hip-hop tracks and recent chart-toppers. But before patience ran too thin, the keyboardist dropped the opening for "UR" and the singer’s fiery red hair came bouncing into view as she ran on stage. Red fluorescent lights illuminated the venue while her trusty band settled into the groove.
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"We gonna do some jams tonight," SZA proclaimed, addressing the crowd as her "day-one fans." After some a capella introductions to each of her songs, the band rolled through a couple of her most popular ballads, “Warm Winds” and “Child’s Play," both off of Z. Even in this early run of songs, it was clear: SZA really is in a creative lane of her own. Her voice, smooth and sensuous, gives the perfect balance to the light, free-form beats of her songs. Mix this with an innocent, child-like stage presence and you’ve got one hell of a concoction. But she works it like a boss, flaunting her tomboy swag and luscious thick locks with attitude to spare.
But the icing on the cake came when she performed “Babylon,” the recorded version of which features a verse from her TDE stablemate Kendrick Lamar. It's a song with deeply personal roots: It’s been reported that as a young child, SZA had to wear a hijab as part of the Muslim tradition. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, she was bullied and teased for the headpiece and eventually decided to stop wearing it. As she performed the song on Saturday, SZA gradually removed articles of her baggy clothing, something that's become a notorious part of her shows.
This was no mere striptease though. It was a moment of catharsis, a ceremonial removal of the life-altering issues from her past. Most artists, much less a 24-year old getting her first taste of success, wouldn't think to incorporate such a bold idea in their performances. Then again, SZA isn't your average performer.