The last time SZA played Coachella, she barely made a dent. It was 2016, and she was still over a year out from releasing Ctrl, the album that took her from the fest poster's small print and into the rarefied upper echelons of the lineup. That set was a decent attempt at turning SZA’s rich internal monologues into festival jams, but it was obvious that there was a disconnect; it’s not that easy to turn introversion into extroversion. This year, SZA came back to Indio as a sub-headliner, playing the penultimate set on Coachella’s main stage to a stadium-sized crowd. And as much as she may have pulled out all the stops––lights, guests, a trampoline––it didn’t feel like she had to sacrifice Ctrl’s intimacy to prove she’s a fucking pop star.
You don’t have to tell SZA about the irony of her career trajectory. After releasing three fairly solid EPs to little success, Ctrl, a painfully personal and inward-looking album, was the one to make her huge. And now, she has to tour the world playing increasingly bigger stages while trying to retain the delicate nuances of Ctrl. Based on the way her set on Friday night looked, it felt like SZA was deeply conscious of the fact that her music excels when it’s small-scale. So she made her stage feel like that too: Only a small band, and props like a caravan, trees, and a campfire, all taken from the “Broken Clocks” video. The colossal screens transformed into a forest during “Garden” and projected footage of old films during “Go Gina,” like we were at the drive-in or an outdoor cinema. Coachella spends a lot of money trying to make the middle of nowhere feel like the centre of the universe; SZA spent a lot of money trying to make that makeshift universe-centre feel like the middle of nowhere.
From the moment SZA came onstage to the opening strains of “Supermodel”––those discordant, dense, now-iconic guitars––there was an atmosphere shift. It’s hard to fully immerse yourself in a set at a festival like this (too many people, too much noise, a bad view of the stage no matter where you are) but of everyone I saw on Friday night, SZA did the best job of making her set feel like an extension of her art rather than something auxiliary.
The setlist pulled only from Ctrl, with some choice additions. “Consideration,” SZA’s Rihanna collaboration, found its way into the middle of the set like a missing piece of Ctrl, and while it’s hard to make a Rihanna song (or even a Rihanna duet, as “Consideration” is) sound like anything other than a Rihanna song, it still didn’t feel out of place. Same goes for “Dark Night Dummo,” a Trippie Redd song that SZA brought him out to perform. Rather than try and fit herself into Travis Scott’s parts in the song, SZA just spent “Dark Night Dummo” running and jumping around the stage, sometimes stopping to yell or mug but rarely actually contributing anything to the song. It could have felt awkward, but it didn’t; so much of Ctrl is stream-of-consciousness inner monologue, and these moments––”Dark Night Dummo,” “Consideration”––were natural extensions of that. Watching SZA dance around onstage with gleeful abandon to “Dark Night Dummo” felt like watching her alone, listening to the song and going wild. There wasn’t a single moment during SZA’s set that it felt like we were in anyone’s world (or, as it may have been, anyone’s brain) other than hers; while she rarely gets credit for it, SZA’s set proved her as one of pop music’s most slyly groundbreaking auteurs, uncompromising in the way she reformats everything, from visuals to guest appearances, to fit into her highly unique vision.
This was never more clear than when she brought out fellow TDE signees Isaiah Rashad and Kendrick Lamar (or, as he put it, Kendrick motherfucking Lamar) to perform. Rashad and Lamar are both absolute stars, but watching them perform with SZA––Lamar on “Doves in the Wind” and “All the Stars,” Rashad on “Pretty Little Birds”––there was no doubt as to who was in charge; with SZA looking absolutely goddamn resplendent in a flowing pink top and pants, there wasn’t a moment when it felt like either rapper was the main attraction. Kendrick Lamar is probably the most famous rapper in the world right now, save maybe Drake, but even he couldn’t overshadow SZA. As the duo performed “All the Stars,” their collaboration from the Black Panther soundtrack, the screens behind them projected images of a bright purple sky. With the tree in the middle of the stage silhouetted against it, the moment recalled a scene from Black Panther, where Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa becomes the Black Panther, and the king of Wakanda. The visual reference was apt: SZA may not have technically been headlining the festival, but her Friday night set felt like a damn coronation.