Terrence “Punch” Henderson first met SZA at the merchandise booth. The Top Dawg Entertainment president and SZA’s now-manager was preparing to release Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, and Solána Imani Rowe was working for a T-shirt company.
“She was selling T-shirts and they didn’t have my size,” Henderson tells Pollstar of the chance meeting that launched the career of one of the world’s biggest R&B singers. “So, we made plans to meet up at the hotel the next day so I could get the shirt in the right size, and she brought a friend along.”
That friend was listening to some of SZA’s earlier works, not paying any attention to the conversation happening between Henderson and Rowe. Eventually, the tracks caught Henderson’s attention and he asked her who she was listening to. “This is her,” SZA’s friend told him.
While Henderson didn’t sign SZA to Top Dawg Entertainment at that exact moment, the two stayed in touch. When the timing was right, she became the first female artist represented on the label. A few years after that, in 2017, she released her debut album, Ctrl. Five and a half years later, she’s now returned with her follow-up, SOS, an album that for all intents and purposes has completely owned 2023.
So far, the reception is all her team dreamed of and then some. SZA’s tied or set records held by Janet Jackson (SOS became the first R&B album by a female artist to spend its first five weeks on the Billboard 200 at No. 1 since Janet in 1993), Beyoncé (the first album since Beyoncé for a Black female artist to spend two weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200), Taylor Swift (the only female artist to simultaneously chart at least 20 songs on the Hot 100) and Adele (first album since 30 to spend its first five weeks at No. 1). As this piece went to print, her single “Kill Bill” was in heated competition with Miley Cyrus’ recently released “Flowers” and Taylor Swift’s “Anti Hero” for the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100.
While Ctrl was named an instant classic, SOS marks her transition from star to superstar. As she headlines arenas for the first time this spring, she proves her power continues to rise.
“She really worked hard on this project,” RCA Records Executive Vice President, Carolyn Williams, tells Pollstar. “It’s a testament of her commitment and the love of her fans. She has one of the most interesting relationships I’ve ever seen between an artist and her fans. They truly love her. They go hard for her. And she’s in constant communication with them.”
Fans have been waiting for SOS as long as they’ve been waiting for new music from Frank Ocean or Rihanna. The past several years on social media saw constant asks for more songs and questions about when the album would be released. How was it coming along? What can fans expect? SZA would often respond to their comments on social media, honestly telling them when she didn’t know how the album was progressing. However, she left them tidbits and leaked several songs anonymously on SoundCloud, including “I Hate U,” “Joni” and “Nightbird.” Music videos for “Shirt” featured snippets of “Blind,” ramping up interest in her Ctrl follow up.
Yet SZA was struggling with many personal problems that put her recordings on hold. Her maternal grandmother, who she described as being incredibly close to, died in 2019, her maternal aunt following only a few months later. Between performances, SZA would fly home to help out her family and spend time with her grandmother, who needed assistance. Recording a new album and plotting out its promotional tour was the furthest thing from her mind, and she returned to it all only when the timing was right.
“Waiting five years for an album isn’t a move most artists can make,” Henderson says. “Only because Ctrl was such a classic were we able to pull that off.”
That SZA never disappeared between her two albums also helped retain fan attention. In 2018, she teamed up with Kendrick Lamar for “All The Stars” from the film “Black Panther,” which has garnered more than 1 billion streams and stands as her most popular track.
Once she turned in SOS and declared the album finished, the team moved at warp speed. SOS was announced a month before it dropped after an appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” where SZA performed both “Shirt” and teased “Blind.” A few of the songs she anonymously leaked also made it on the album.
Days after her sophomore release came out, SZA and her team unveiled the first leg of the “SOS Tour.” The upcoming trek marks her first time taking the stage on a headlining arena run, and the majority of tickets sold out almost immediately. “We were initially thinking of doing a theater run,” Henderson explains. “But with the success of the last album, we figured we’d make it bigger.” So they turned their eyes towards arenas, with bigger production, more buses (including several for clothes, hair and makeup, according to her manager), more dancers and more surprises.
Several songs on SOS were recorded with a vision in mind of how they would translate to fans’ live experience. “Nobody Gets Me” was written with the conceptualization that the lights of the venue would drop down low, shining solely on SZA.
At RCA Records and Top Dawg Entertainment, the majority of SZA’s team has been with her since before Ctrl came out.
“She was always a good performer,” Williams says. “I remember seeing her and she always looked like she was having fun on stage. I would watch her bounce and she always brought so much energy. Now she brings that same energy, but the production level is stepped up.”
Part of that stepped-up production included a lighthouse onstage during SZA’s performance at the August 2022 Outside Lands music festival in San Francisco. At the time, fans weren’t aware of SOS outside of the hope SZA would release it sometime soon. Looking back, the stage setup at Outside Lands served as an Easter egg hinting towards the news that would come two months later.
Prior to releasing SOS, SZA and her team were nervous about how the album would be received. While the absence of a record for more than five years may have made the heart grow fonder, it also left high expectations for fans.
“The heart only grows fonder with absence if the love’s real,” SZA’s agent, Brent Smith, EVP and managing executive at Wasserman Music, says. “Create truly beautiful, honest art and people will stay with you. That’s the secret of SZA’s crazy success.”
To this day, Ctrl has still never left the Billboard 200 since its release. However, Henderson’s years of experience in the industry allowed SZA to avoid the pressure of falling into the so-called “sophomore slump.” He noticed a trend where artists would sometimes go too big with production after the fame and fortune found from their debut albums, and he guided SZA to keep true to herself and write something that spoke to her heart with SOS. When it came to putting out the tour dates just after the album was released, the team realized they struck gold once again.
“[Ctrl] remained incredibly relevant, and still is,” says Ryan McElrath, SVP of North American Touring for Live Nation, which is promoting the “SOS Tour.” “It just spoke to the connection she has with her fanbase. Everybody’s creative process is different, and she put out music when she was ready. Obviously, anticipation builds over time. Then she continued to put out incredible music, which is what’s driven this level of excitement from her fan base and ultimately is selling all these tickets.”
McElrath continues that, “for all intents and purposes [the tour] sold out immediately. It was beyond all of our wildest expectations and pretty remarkable. I think as everybody saw the response to her dropping the record, it became less of a surprise. It truly was a moment, the record being dropped and the way it was embraced by her fans not just automatically but globally. Ultimately, to see that many people wanted to experience their music in person, for an artist to go and do that level of business is pretty remarkable.”
The “SOS Tour” kicks off on Feb. 21 at Columbus, Ohio’s Schottenstein Center. From there, she’ll be taking the stage at Chicago’s United Center, New York City’s Madison Square Garden, Atlanta’s State Farm Arena, Kia Forum in Inglewood, California, and more.
“It goes without saying that Madison Square Garden is the most famous arena in the world,” McElrath says of SZA’s “local arena” (she grew up nearby in Maplewood, New Jersey). “It’s a special moment for all artists being able to go in and play Madison Square Garden. And playing multiple nights is a pretty major achievement for an artist.”
While summer 2022 saw numerous festival plays with SZA, including Austin City Limits, Outside Lands, Day N Vegas and Wireless Festival, it’s been more than a year since SZA took the stage as a headliner on her own tour. Last year saw a short run of headlining performances, kicking off at The Ballroom at Warehouse Live in Houston on Nov. 3, 2021, with stops at South Side Music Hall in Dallas on Nov. 7 and Fillmore Auditorium in Denver on Nov. 9. Since then, the bulk of her performances took place on festival stages.
McElrath first started working with SZA back in 2018 with “TDE: The Championship Tour,” which included Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, SIR and Lance Skiiiwalker. Highlights from the trek saw a sold-out night at Madison Square Garden on May 29, 2018, grossing $1.4 million, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports. The May 13, 2018, performance at Chula Vista, California’s Mattress Firm Arena grossed $929,125, and two nights at the Forum in Inglewood May 10-11 sold out, grossing $2.8 million.
When the tour stopped in Oakland, California, on May 9, 2018, at what is now the Oakland Arena, “The Championship Tour” brought in yet another $1.4 million.
Back when her career was first kicking off, SZA’s opening slots highlighted her genre-
less style. Her earliest reported dates to
Pollstar’s Boxoffice feature several opening slots with Little Dragon in 2013 performances at SXSW, and an opening slot with Coldplay
in 2014. Her first headlining show took place at Rough Trade in Brooklyn, New York, on
July 15, 2014, grossing $1,035. That same year in December, she joined Jhené Aiko’s headlining tour.
SOS itself highlights SZA’s genre-blending style, the album featuring collaborations with
Phoebe Bridgers, a sample from Ol’ Dirty Bastard (the song, “Forgiveless,” also samples Björk’s “Hidden Place” and is considered a favorite throughout the TDE team), Don Toliver and Travis Scott. As Henderson describes, SZA herself is a person of multiple genres, and it translates naturally to her live performances.
Bringing on Omar Apollo as the “SOS Tour” opener also came as an obvious choice. His own music complements SZA’s, rounding out the fan experience as they walk through the venue doors. That he is also represented by Smith at Wasserman Music helped when it came to routing.
The entirety of SOS and its tour comes
from SZA. Both Henderson and Williams emphasize how involved she is with every aspect of the process from the album’s creation to release.
“This was really her doing,” Williams says. “I couldn’t say we got into a boardroom and strategized about it. It was something that came together based on what was happening and what she was doing. … That’s the great thing about working with her. This is her baby. These are her words, this is her passion. This is her. These are all things coming from her and we feel it’s our job to help bring her message to the masses and amplify it to make sure we’re supporting her art and what she’s bringing to the table.”
Despite the success, SZA’s team still sees her as who she’s always been. With more money, more production and bigger stages, the core of her artistry remains as “that same girl having fun on stage.” From the beginning, Williams describes SZA as bringing a certain energy toher performances. She promises that the same will remain on the upcoming tour, but that the production will be “next level.” And her fans are ecstatic.