Stephen Zhu is an enigma. Known by his stage name ZHU, his career has been marked by astronomical success and deliberately faceless anonymity.
On his first-ever North American tour, which hit Minneapolis' Skyway Theatre on Saturday, the curtain is being lifted to expose some of electronic music's most unique sounds coming from an even more distinctive artist.
After focusing more on classic EDM while a student at USC's Thornton School of Music, Stephen Zhu released his first song as ZHU on SoundCloud in 2014. “Moves like Ms. Jackson” is an Outkast mashup produced in an ethereal, not-quite-techno, not-quite-house style that has come to define most of his mixes.
When the track played on Saturday, longtime fans in the crowd immediately recognized it, but the commotion didn’t come close to the excitement created by ZHU's first international hit. Released in 2014, "Faded" was quickly remixed by the likes of ODESZA, Lido, Big Gigantic, Amtrac, and many more prominent producers. It received a Grammy nomination for Best Dance Recording.
The bass-driven single, played during the middle of his set, opened to an epic onslaught of cheers. With the lyrics projected behind the DJ booth, the crowd belted the first verse before ZHU took over, completing the song only after a guitar solo that felt like it was implanted from a rock concert.
The modified live version of “Faded” pulled on the strengths highlighted in each of the track’s remixes. ODESZA illuminated the intense tension that ZHU’s lyrics evoke; Lido put the softness of the song into a slow build; Amtrac took that slow build and made it unapologetically dancy; Big Gigantic added an unexpected jazzy twist to the otherwise harsh beat.
These modifications persisted throughout the set. Shadowy figures projected behind the stage created an edgy environment; moments of silence coupled with near-darkness underscored the variability of the songs; a continuous beat drove the whole crowd to keep moving; recurring guitar and trumpet solos from two additional band members revealed Stephen Zhu’s affinity for jazz.
A year before his debut album, 2015's Genesis Series, ZHU dropped The Nightday EP. The crowd was fully hooked the moment he opened with Nightday cut “Superfriends." But, in general, the best parts of that album were buried by heavy house beats. On Genesis Series, however, the style shifted to begin fully encapsulating ZHU’s special “thing," reflected on record and in concert.
“Cocaine Model,” the finale of the EP, foreshadowed the current ZHU sound. Featuring an unobtrusive yet driving beat, the song is an indulgence in softness. In the live setting, it started as a part of a deep-house mix that transitioned between songs. But when played by itself pre-encore, the complex track offered mysterious closure, finishing off with an extended breakdown. It's that type of innovation that made Genesis Series so popular.
Much of the performance, like the full-length album, embraced ZHU as an ominous, cloaked personality. The entire trio — ZHU himself, a guitarist, and a trumpeter — wore black hoodies that obscured their faces, black flat-brim hats, green mirrored sunglasses, black pants, and metallic silver sneakers.
They entered through a cloud of smoke in a scene resembling Tron: Legacy. Their sneakers glinted, white lights illuminated from behind to create a shadow/super human illusion, and the beat sparked like an EDM war cry. It was intense, showy, and futuristic, but somehow not cheesy.
Every song came with a twist Saturday, whether it was adding a rap, a "Thong Song" sample, or orating a sermon-like tribute to Prince accompanied by a guitar solo and flashing purple lights. The stylistic shifts from EP to album to concert demonstrate ZHU's knack for adaptation, and he announced a new album will drop July 29. While he may work to remain faceless, it will be impossible for him to remain nameless.
Critic’s bias: I insist on dancing my pants off at every concert I attend. Seeing ZHU live made me appreciate the oh-so-prominent clubby beats on his EP for creating a perfect hoedown environment.
The crowd: Full-on ravers, unsuspecting hip young adults, vaping tweens.
Overheard in the crowd No. 1: “PLAY DRAKE. VIEWS. PLEASE.” — my new friend Shri, who is as in love with Champagne Papi as the rest of us.
Overheard in the crowd No. 2: “You don’t deserve the beach balls anymore” — a security guard, frustrated with the task of throwing balls and balloons back from the crevice between the front row and the stage.
Overheard in the crowd No. 3: “Should I wear a button-down?” — my significant other whilst preparing to attend his first concert.
Random notebook dump No. 1: SAX GAME ON POINT; BASS GUITAR SOLO AF.
Random notebook dump No. 2: Girl throws elbows earnestly and violently. Dance move or self-defense?
Setlist (ZHU played a continuous mix, so some tracks were just sampled between full songs):
In The Morning
Cocaine Model (sample)
Paradise Awaits (sample)
The One - vocal breakdown
Prince tribute ("Feel U Up" and many more samples)
Moves like Ms. Jackson
As Crazy As It Is
Hold Up, Wait a Minute
West Coast - Lana Del Ray Remix
Working For It
Ain’t That Peculiar (Marvin Gaye Remix)
Gun (Chvrches Remix)