"I don't know what the fuck it is about a small, enclosed space," SZA said last night during her headlining set at Space's new live music venue, the Ground, "but we were in a weird stadium situation the other night and we were like, 'Do they even like us?'"
Even after booking her first headlining tour only months after the release of her first full-length album, Ctrl, after her hit song "Love Galore" has propelled the commercial success of that album, and after being given public votes of confidence by label mate Kendrick Lamar and near-future tour mate Bryson Tiller, SZA is still unsure of how she'll be received by the audience that compelled her onstage by screaming her name until the lights went up.
On most other artists, this "they like me, they really like me" sentiment might ring shallow or disingenuous, but it's believable coming from someone who's put her insecurities on blast in the most candid of ways in her music. It's exactly this detailed struggle with self-doubt that's made SZA a star seemingly overnight, lending relatability to her tough-chick exterior.
It was easy to see why last night, as her audience — diverse, but overwhelmingly female — shouted every word back at her, at various points even singing over the powerhouse vocalist. "Leave me lonely for prettier women," they sang along. "I could be your supermodel/If you believe/If you see it in me."
She told the stories behind the songs she wrote for Ctrl: She wrote "Prom" about missing her prom to come to Florida with her mom because she had no friends in high school, and "Drew Barrymore" about waiting all day for a dude only to have him show up with another girl.
During "Normal Girl" she sang, "This time next year I'll be livin' so good/Won't remember your name, I swear," and though that next year has come and the audiences and escalating success have followed, SZA still appears hesitant to buy into the hype. Nothing is lacking in her kinetic, high-octane performance. She gives and leaves it all onstage as she fronts her three-piece band, gliding across the stage and improvising high kicks during energetic songs like "Wavy" or "HiiiJack."
It's in the subtle nervous ticks of awkwardness that she reveals she's still learning. Her banter has yet to move past banalities like, "So, is anyone going through a transition or changes?" And she's new enough at this to pick a totally impractical top to perform in; in this case a tube top that slipped down repeatedly during the entirety of the show. She didn't let on that it bothered her too much, but she never stopped pulling it up. After singing a raw ballad like "20 Something," she still lets out a nervous laugh here and there, as she flashes her pearl-white teeth, and flips her hair.
When she was singing, the stage was much too small for her; it felt like a massive superstar artist doing a surprise "intimate show" for the die-hards after years of playing massive venues. Her talent has outgrown the stage, but SZA is still learning the nuances of the space between the songs.
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