SZA is the festival headliner who will save our summers

A SZA album isn’t really a genre piece: it’s a bird floating on a heat column, it’s a writhing existential question mark, it’s the afterglow of a really good kiss (Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock)
A SZA album isn’t really a genre piece: it’s a bird floating on a heat column, it’s a writhing existential question mark, it’s the afterglow of a really good kiss (Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock)

Who is SZA?” a swathe of articles asked in the wake of the Glastonbury line-up announcement in March. “Why is she headlining one of the biggest festivals on earth?” Google trends from around the time showed that enough people were searching those exact questions for it to be worth answering. But the people asking “huh?” just haven’t been paying attention. As the 34-year-old singer-songwriter gears up to headline Primavera Sound in Barcelona this week (and a host of other European and North American festivals across the summer), it’s time to make space in your live music schedule for her.

It’s not unusual to have to wade through spittle-flecked complaints in the wake of a festival announcement, commenters bemoaning from their armchairs the work done by a vast network of people who’ve pulled together acts that fit the vibe, the budget and the expectations of ticket-buyers. Festivals like Glastonbury and Primavera Sound have often taken a chance on an unexpected headline act – back in 2007, people were furious that Arctic Monkeys were headlining Glastonbury for the first time with just two albums under their belt. Look how that all turned out.

So, a history lesson. SZA is no flash in the pan. She’s been working her way up the ranks since her first self-released EPs in 2012 and 2013, made at home on a whim using beats she came across on the internet. Even these first records contain everything she has come to epitomise: skewed electronic pop, enigmatic lyricism and angelic harmonies as she meanders through her subconscious, lethargically detailing her plans for bloody revenge and putting Adderall in her green tea. Off the back of these EPs, she signed a record deal with Top Dawg Entertainment to become the first female label-mate of Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q.

Things really started to take off in 2017 when she released Ctrl, which was critically adored and became the second longest-charting R&B album by a female artist on the Billboard 200: it also scored four Grammy nominations with its air of insouciant lo-fi indie, always foregrounding SZA’s rawly honest vocal over charmingly scrappy tracks that mix everything from the campfire strum of acoustic guitar to fuck-boi trap beats. She is refreshingly honest in a way that the empowerment set aren’t – when she’s the other woman, she’s sorry about it (but not sorry enough to stop); when she’s dating someone who leaves her hanging, she acknowledges her own whims that have hurt people too.

She followed Ctrl with SOS, released at the tail-end of 2022 – a date that scuppered its chances of the clean “year-end-round-up” sweep she would probably have got otherwise. It brought with it the pristine “Kill Bill”, in which she fantasises about killing her ex – “not the best idea”, she sings – and his new girlfriend in such a romantic way that you find yourself ready to hand her the gun. It has over one billion streams on Spotify (approximately one million of them were me). SOS hit number two on the UK album chart and broke the record for largest streaming week for an R&B album in the US. Between her own releases, she also featured on Rihanna’s 2014 album ANTI and the Kendrick Lamar-curated soundtrack for Black Panther, and had viral hits on TikTok. If you haven’t heard of SZA at this point, that’s honestly on you.

In fairness, though, music is more fragmented than it has ever been: someone can be as wildly successful as SZA without being a household name like Taylor Swift or Beyoncé (SZA has also written for Beyoncé, by the way). You could make the argument that someone like the singer-songwriter Mitski could be hitting the Pyramid Stage on Sunday night – she might not be “chart-big” but comes with a combination of rabid teen fans and “real music” types who find her acceptable because she has a guitar and will take any opportunity to tell you about the time they saw her play The Victoria in Dalston to 25 people (hi).

SZA, meanwhile, reflects both the fracturing of modern pop fandom, as well as music that has never been more free of the constraints of genre. SZA herself has expressed discomfort with being referred to as an R&B artist, and it does feel too limiting for the music she puts out. A SZA album isn’t really a genre piece: it’s a bird floating on a heat column, it’s a writhing existential question mark, it’s the afterglow of a really good kiss – and it’s got hits, babes, such hits. These are all things I want from a festival headliner: especially the hits, many of which creep up on you until the moment you find yourself earnestly yelling them into the night. And if you don’t know them yet… again, I have to stress, that is on you.

What even makes a headliner in 2024? It comes with a whole host of logistics made ever more impossible to navigate by Brexit, by the industry’s struggle to recover from lockdowns and by a population that demands their precise, esoteric tastes be catered to. Glastonbury – and to a lesser extent festivals like Primavera – are in a position to say, “Hey, we know you like loads of different stuff: this thing you haven’t heard before is going to be great.” Maybe that makes more sense at a festival that leans alternative, but how cool is it that one of the big three slots at Glastonbury has gone to someone who has a huge fanbase but hasn’t necessarily got that universal reach yet? That headliner pipeline isn’t going to fill itself.

So grab yourself a warm beer, pull up your waterproof trews and head out into the sea of people who already know that SZA is going to deliver a festival set that is as soft and heavy as life itself, that will be full of moments of transient beauty and righteous fury and will leave you feeling like you just experienced something special, even if it’s not your first choice. The era of SZA is here: might as well get on board.

SZA is also headlining British Summer Time festival on Saturday 29 June.