It’s a Tuesday night, and Bimbo’s 365 Club is sold out. Fans in furs and Y2K fashions are waving Algerian flags, here to welcome Lolo Zouaï for her hometown show — the first stop on the U.S. leg of her international Playgirl tour. When she hits the stage with her band, she transports us to the year 3004, and everyone sings along.
Zouaï (pronounced zoo-eye) is a French-Algerian, San Francisco-raised pop singer who made her debut right before the pandemic with 2019’s High Highs to Low Lows, a moody, downtempo R&B album. From there she opened for Dua Lipa on the 2022 Future Nostalgia tour. Now, she’s returned with a danceable new sound for her sophomore album, Playgirl, and its accompanying 20-city tour — starting in San Francisco.
In the cover art for High Highs to Low Lows, Zouaï looks blankly at the viewer with an almost finished cigarette in her mouth. On Playgirl, she embraces her imagination, adopting a playful fembot character built for a cybernetic world.
“When I made the title track [“pl4yg1rl”], I was like ‘Oh, shit!’ [And] then I created the world [of the album]. So the world kind of came after the music,” says Zouaï … it was fun to come up with concepts, and see it through with the visuals. The world is completed with the [live] show.”
While Zouaï grew up in San Francisco, the Lowell High graduate moved to New York at 19, around the time she started her musical career in earnest. Now 28, back in S.F. for this show, she is reminded how much she loves the city — whether visiting friends and family, going to the Sunset for boba, or chilling at Ocean Beach.
Though she’s gone far from home, the singer’s history is never far behind. On Playgirl, Zouaï takes her listeners into her Brooklyn bedroom — but her sound also embodies her unique blend of cultural influences: she was born in Paris to a French mother and Algerian father, and moved to San Francisco when she was just three months old. She says making music that reflects her different backgrounds has helped her find her voice.
“Before I put out my first song, I was trying to figure out what my voice was, and then I realized that my power in my music would be incorporating my cultures,” Zouaï says. “By putting in different languages and sounds that I grew up listening to, I feel like that’s where I struck my core fanbase, and they connected through that.”
On Playgirl, you can hear influences like Rihanna, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga and the California Dream era of Katy Perry. But there are other musical threads in Zouaï’s sound that might not be immediately obvious to a surface-level listener.
Zouaï paid homage to Bay Area hip-hop with an E-40 feature on her first album, and with Playgirl, she wanted to bring the music of her upbringing to the forefront.
“I think growing up in the Bay, in high school especially, that’s just what I loved to listen to,” she said.
Here, Zouaï ’s single “pl4yg1rl” interpolates Too $hort’s 2003 song “Pimpandho.com” off his Married to the Game album — a track Zouaï had in her headphones as a teenager singing in the Lowell High choir.
“I wanted to show more of the playful side, and put a little bit of the hyphy sound with Playgirl,” she said regarding what listeners get with Playgirl. “I feel like a lot of people, my fans don’t even know that music, and they’re just not even going to know it, but I just wanted to do that for myself. To shout out the Bay and that’s just what I had to do.”
Many of her songs reflect her journey so far: At the show, she began singing the title track from her first album. “The song that started it all,” she said, introducing “High Highs to Low Lows” as one of the last songs of the night.
Back when she wrote it, she was working odd jobs during the day and following her dreams at night, seeing signs that she was on the right path.
Her fans, whom she calls “lo-riders,” seem to identify no matter how she might change from one record to the next.
“I’m always thinking about my fans,” she said. “I think the reason I have a fanbase is because I’ve always been doing my thing, and I’m not really trying to be anything other than myself.”