Photos by Joshua Chia.
SZA-songstress, first lady of house Top Dawg Entertainment, the woman behind the songs that made your girlfriend break up with you-has been, for a long time, the prime example of a “If you know, you know” case. One that, when every few passing months there was news that her debut album, CTRL, faced yet another release delay, fans expressed that SZA deserved better.
She deserved to be heard on an even grander scale than the one she built through trickling collaborations, her mixtapes, a charting effort (“Z”), a feature on Rihanna’s ANTI and the moment that was the Kendrick Lamar-assisted “Babylon”. She was a bubbling secret-not-secret that, when CTRL finally dropped and people heard her carve deeply into familiar etches on “Drew Barrymore”, “Love Galore”, and “Supermodel”, the rest of the world immediately woke up to what was already a fact. If you knew, you knew: SZA was born for this.
This is a moment to own, both for her as an artist and for her fans. At her show in Toronto, a sold-out affair at Rebel, that dual confidence was felt from the stage to the groups of friends gathering and dancing like it was a Saturday wine night; even Drake snuck into the party. They belted out SZA’s narratives, the ones skirting the lines between self-love and deprecation, addictive relationships and broken bridges, with such infectious enthusiasm that it was impossible for even the most chill goer to not take a sip. Even old favourites like “Child’s Play” and “HiiJack” found their way in the CTRL-heavy fanfare.
What separates SZA from many artists in her cohort is that storytelling, often expressed through a mix of rap bridges, pop culture references, and verses assembled to guide you through the scene. Shared with her rich, genre-bending voice that she riffs throughout her live show and a supporting band, SZA speaks to you like an all-knowing friend that you need. She cheerleads on “Go Gina”, she empowers on “Doves in the Wind”, and on “Broken Clocks” she reminds both you and her of self-worth. That interaction, especially, off record, is so gratifying. When she ended with “Babylon” (no cameo included from Kendrick Lamar, who was at the ACC the same night), you weren’t ready to be kicked out of the conversation. But at least you left more wiser and, after all of that singing, more lighter than before.