SZA review, Glastonbury 2024: One of the sparsest sets in recent memory frequently leaves you breathless

For many a Glastonbury headliner, the Sunday night crowd is the ripest of low-hanging fruit. Survivors are sleepless, restless and mentally depleted, vulnerable to the laziest heartstring thrums and the faintest pangs of nostalgia.

But an artist like SZA, the 34-year-old singer born Solána Imani Rowe, offers neither. After Dua Lipa’s laser-guided precision and Coldplay’s pyrotechnic catharsis, SZA – a Grammy-sweeping R&B phenom with an arsenal of candid heartbreakers – is perhaps a tough sell, less cultural colossus than a secret shared between millions.

But a four-day stint in the world’s largest and most beloved green-field music festival brings a few benefits. Along with the pinballing emotions come fellow feeling and fraternity. Though not yet a household name in the UK – “SZA who?” asked the uninitiated – she is the perfect conduit for our heightened empathy, too cerebral to raise the roof but potent enough to eke out our last reserves of euphoria.

Rising from a stage set that is part ice cave, part ancient Egyptian palace, she begins by slingshotting from the string swells of “PSA” into a frenzied “Love Galore”, wearing a tasselled bronze dress and backed by a clan of piston-pumping dancers.

SZA gave a dazzling performance on Sunday night (AP)
SZA gave a dazzling performance on Sunday night (AP)

She sings lines such as “Why you bother me when you know you got a woman?” as if, like the knackered weekenders in attendance, she were in the midst of some devastating fever dream.

The high-octane production and live band continue the trajectory from CTRL – her quietly star-making 2017 album – to 2022 follow-up SOS, the US chart-topper that rescaled her bedroom confessionals for supersized intimacy. Every musical flourish comes with fairy lights, each pregnant pause stretched like a balloon ready to pop.

The crowd – one of the sparsest in recent memory – has plenty of room for fans to act out theatrical serenades and, amid the pop-punk blaze of “FWF”, form dozens of micro mosh pits.

Seemingly acting out her own madcap fairytale on the elaborate set, SZA straddles a giant model ant, grinds a throne-shaped humanoid, twirls dual katanas for a dance sequence and ascends a lifesize tree trunk in fairy wings before busting into her verse from Drake’s “Rich Baby Daddy”. The choreography is reliably intense, sometimes distracting from the intoxicating melisma and half-rapped confessions that, given her full attention, frequently leave you breathless.

SZA performing on the Pyramid Stage (PA Wire)
SZA performing on the Pyramid Stage (PA Wire)

A medley of Doja Cat collaboration “Kiss Me More” and a surprise cover of Prince’s “Kiss” is perfectly timed, hitting just as night falls and the crowd starts hungering for a party.

But highlights like “Supermodel” – a snapshot of social anxiety, status anxiety, petty jealousy and self-recrimination delivered in a tone of ennui and apology – could not more sharply contrast the empowerment anthems of contemporaries like Friday night headliner Dua Lipa. No room for Radical Optimism, as Lipa’s second album title has it. SZA is the ambassador for radical nihilism.

By closer “Twentysomethings”, she has brought her contingent of diehards to a dream state of ecstasy and emotional ruin, albeit without straining to make new converts. That she made us work for it, rather than spoon-feeding us fireworks and feels, makes this melancholy, oddly intimate spectacle hit just that little bit harder. For one night, at least, the secret was out, allowing SZA and Glastonbury’s downtrodden faithful to suffer in solidarity.