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SZA Brings Out Cardi B at Madison Square Garden: Concert Review

Jun 13, 2024

To say that SZA made a huge splash with her hits-filled, nautically themed “SOS” tour concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Saturday would be a conceptually on-message but drastically understated statement: She performed 32 songs on a wildly elaborate seaside-themed stage that included a giant fake fishing boat, a dinghy that soared above the crowd and a lighthouse, brought out two fellow queens — rapper Cardi B and indie-rock titan Phoebe Bridgers, within 10 minutes of each other, no less — and played a crowd-pleasing, nearly two-hour-long set that had the audience out of their seats and singing along for virtually the entire show.

The concert had a loose shipwreck storyline (“SOS,” get it?) — beginning with her sitting on a diving board like she is on the cover of “SOS,” progressing to a dockside, the boat, the dinghy, an aquarium and concluding back on the diving board — that was accompanied by scenes of a beautiful ocean, a star-filled sky and Pixar-like underwater imagery on the giant video screens on the stage. The show was so visually dazzling that it concluded with a giant cinematic “The End” on the screens and — in a classy, generous move that every major concert should employ from now on — actual closing credits, from the bandmembers to the dancers and choreographers to the technicians and truck drivers.

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After a rousing opening set from Omar Apollo that primed the crowd, the concert was centered on the 23-track “SOS” — which has logged 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 since its release in December — but included many songs from her 2017 debut “Cntrl” as well as her prominent features like “All of the Lights” and “and “Kiss Me Closer” (although those songs’ collaborators, Kendrick Lamar and Saweetie, did not appear, after Cardi B and Phoebe B., no one was complaining: SZA and her five bandmembers, four dancers and the cast of hundreds required to create such a sonic and visual extravaganza soaring through the set’s 32 songs, quickly and seamlessly.

Yet SZA was at the center of the action for the entire show, making four costume changes and taking very few breaks, moving in synch with the dancers while delivering her complicated, vocally challenging melodies with ease, punctuating them with jazzy flourishes and nuances of agitation, joy and sensuality. The production may have been IMAX, but her singing was as intimate and dramatic if she were having a personal conversation in her kitchen.

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The show opened with a giant video screen portraying the seaside scene on the album’s cover, which then lifted to reveal SZA seated high above the stage on the diving board for “PSA”; the screen then dropped at the end of the song and showed a video of SZA diving off of the board into the water and launching the show.

She reemerged in the dock setting for a brawny run at “Seek & Destroy,” before moving through moody mid-tempo moments such as “Notice Me” (with chunks of “Conceited”) and Erykah Badu‘s “Bag Lady” morphing into “Blind.”

After SZA said, “This is the first time we’ve played this song onstage,” the brand broke into “Ghost in the Machine” and the crowd erupted when Bridgers joined in for her verse — but just minutes later, it exploded when Cardi, sporting a bright red dress and long, straight hair for an extended melding of her “I Do” with the GloRilla collab “Tomorrow 2,” with SZA providing color commentary.

From the boat, SZA soared through the grandeur of “Smoking on My Ex Pack”/ “Too Late” and the syn-drum snap of “All the Stars” before launching into a rock segment (complete with headbanging from her guitarist) of “F2F,” “Doves in the Wind,” and the clustered words and “Drew Barrymore.”

As the video screens erupted with stormy seas, cueing the shipwreck, the orange lifeboat lowered to the stage from the rafters and SZA soared dozens of feet above the crowd, singing the acoustic-based “Nobody Gets Me” and soulfully anthemic “Gone Girl” while moving all the way to the opposite end of the arena floor, where a 20-foot-tall lighthouse, complete with a spotlight moving across the crowd, had suddenly appeared.

She returned and was lowered onto the now underwater-themed stage (the giant boat had somehow completely vanished) for the concert’s last quarter. SZA ran fast and loose through the up-tempo electro-pop of “SOS,” the hard-strummed “Snooze” and the violent reds of “Kill Bill” and the anthemic emotionalism of “I Hate You,” which had hundreds of people raising middle fingers and singing along with the song’s “Fuuuuuuuck you!” refrain.But rather than ending on a vengeful note, the concert ended as it began, with SZA singing the concluding “Good Days” from the diving board, completing the song’s sunny theme by wearing a bright-yellow, feather-decked gown.

As the credits literally rolled on the video screen and the house lights came up, SZA ran back out onstage to thank the almost-hometown audience, adding a final, human touch to a wildly cinematic and technologically dazzling, but ultimately very human concert. As a musical, visual and emotional experience, SZA’s “SOS” tour will be hard to top — best of luck, Beyonce and Taylor.