SZA Gives Powerful Performance at House of Blues

It was around the time when a concert-goer near me last night practically fell to her knees, palms outstretched and grasping, belting along to SZA’s “Drew Barrymore” — “I’m sorry I’m not more attractive/I’m sorry I’m not more ladylike/I’m sorry I don’t shave my legs at night” — that the power of the 28-year-old New Jersey singer began sinking in.

SZA (pronounced Sih-zuh, for the record) makes music that feels unpretentiously real and that she really, honestly likes. This is not a given, and it made her performance endearing and deeply relatable. I nodded when she spoke about jealous glances at a supposed boo who arrives at a party with someone else; my neighbor felt it in her crooned confessional insecurities and resignations.

SZA loses herself dancing to her music like we have alone in our bedroom mirrors. She fans out to the Travis Scott verse on "Love Galore" like we do, and raps with a mischievous grin along to Kendrick’s tongue-in-cheek bars on “Doves in the Wind” like we did. She sheepishly tucks a blunt behind her ear like we might, and riffs over her refrains like we try to but mostly wish we could.

CTRL, her album released in June, was one of 2017’s best — Pitchfork just ranked it at #2 behind TDE labelmate Kendrick Lamar’s Damn, and it garnered her the most Grammy nominations of any female artist this year. With a serrated, poignant narrative voice and a twisting vocal ribbon that blends Rihanna, Amy Winehouse and Selah Sue, SZA slices a cross-section through a twenty-something’s resignation, self-doubt, love stories and self-discovery. It hits the mark.

The Cleveland audience’s impassioned sing-along drowned out the performer on tracks from opener “Supermodel” to “Weekend” and “Love Galore,” her excellent three-piece backing band soundtracking the Church of SZA congregation.

She didn’t do it alone. An opening set from 18-year-old Chicago soul phenom Ravyn Lenae struck a chord with the audience, her incredible range evoking Erykah Badu as she flowed on-stage with the presence of an Egyptian goddess. Monte Booker-produced “Spice” was a stand-out, pegging the young singer as a star-in-the-making.

A second set from St. Louis-via-Chicago rapper Smino and his live band felt like a headlining act. Robust performances of hits like “Anita” and “Netflix and Dussé,” funk breakdowns, and live dubs of T-Pain’s “Chopped and Skrewed” and Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love You” electrified the crowd. Cavs stars Lebron James, Channing Frye, J.R. Smith, and Dwyane Wade, along with his wife, actress Gabrielle Union, danced into the balcony seats to the crowd and artists’ delight.

“What up, derrty?” Smino said to Smith, who he’d (semi-)jokingly asked earlier in the day on Twitter about a weed connection. Maybe J.R. had come through for him.

SZA bounded off the momentum of her excellent openers — in an oversized pink bubble jacket, a black crop top, camo overalls, and flowing locks, her stage presence was natural and brightly energetic, swaggering and vulnerable. She’d arrived late on a flight and missed soundcheck, but hit her vocals strong, standing out as she riffed gorgeously to close out “Go Gina,” or sang 2014’s “Sobriety” a cappella.

The show was very sold out, with tickets going for $200 on secondary markets in the days leading up to the event. House of Blues shook on night boasting the worst weather of the winter thus far, and it felt right. Whether or not the political moment of trash men being drop-kicked out of positions of power was anywhere near the audience’s mind is tough to say. But without overreaching in interpretation, this felt like a crystallization, though fleeting, of part of what the other side of this era may look like.

There was something electrifying and important about hearing a diverse, primarily female audience yell Princess’s verse when the opening DJ spun “Knuck If You Buck,” or collectively bellow, “I’ve paid enough of petty dues/I’ve heard enough of shitty news” along with the headliner. As SZA stood in front of four enormous letters — C T R L — and sang with the crowd about taking back control, something small but vital felt like it clicked into place amidst the bullshit that’s been 2017.