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SZA live at Glastonbury: masterful but disconnected

One of the riskiest bookings in the festival's history is a smash for the diehards but does little to placate the nay-sayers.

3.0 rating

By Will Richards

SZA live at Glastonbury (Picture: BBC)

Since Glastonbury took their biggest risk in 2008 with the divisive booking of Jay-Z, the festival have consistently continued to make bold headliner appointments, welcoming new genres and giving new stars their first headline slots. Beyoncé brought pure pop to the farm in 2011, Metallica were the first metal band to headline in 2014, and new British icons Stormzy and Dua Lipa have stepped up to the next level in the last five years.

The booking of SZA to headline the final night of this year’s festival may stand out as the single riskiest and boldest booking in Glastonbury’s history though. Though she is the most well-respected – and best – R&B artist working today, and is coming off the back of a sold-out arena tour and a Hyde Park gig the night before Glastonbury, SZA remains far from a household name. At the Pyramid Stage, this manifests at a headline show performed to a front section of adoring superfans, and a crowd beyond that is notably sparse and somewhat frosty with their reception.

If the uninitiated need to be won over, SZA isn’t interested in spoon feeding it to them. While Saturday night saw Coldplay’s Chris Martin offering up overly sentimental messages of peace and love to an enormous crowd, after Dua Lipa played radio hit after radio hit on Friday, SZA is their antithesis. Save for a heartfelt and warm thanks of appreciation at the end of the show, she barely speaks to the crowd at all and does little to ease in the sceptics or the casuals sitting – and shivering – at the middle and back of the hill.

Another stumbling block for the show is the percentage of mid-tempo songs in her catalogue, and it’s when she breaks from that languid flow that the show starts to translate best. An avalanche of distorted guitars crash through the monumental ‘F2F’, while Doja Cat collaboration ‘Kiss Me More’ is a flirty delight, ended by a short cover of Prince’s ‘Kiss’. The boisterous ‘I Hate U’ and devastatingly soft closer ’20 Something’ also stand out, with the extreme ends of her sound cutting through far more than the middleground.

Her new live show is also one that begs to be viewed up close and fully immersed. Visually it’s an arresting spectacle, a mythical wonderland of greenery and wildlife. For a few songs in the middle of the set, she straddles a giant ant while belting out spine-tingling pitch-perfect vocals.

Though the show is visually stunning, full of top-tier songs and Glastonbury headline sets are judged by their moments,  often through the welcoming of a series of special guests. SZA, however, doesn’t call on Phoebe Bridgers (‘Ghost in the Machine’), Kendrick Lamar (‘All the Stars’) or Doja Cat (‘Kiss Me More’) and instead sticks to the script of her adapted SOS tour which is heading around the European festival circuit this summer. As a result, it falls a little flat for similar reasons to Billie Eilish’s underwhelming headliner debut in 2022, where a spectacle a little more special and singular was required.

It might not go down a storm, but for those close enough to lean in and fully immerse themselves, it’s a show of brilliant dexterity and class. For Glastonbury, it’s another step into a new world they are wise to embrace.