SZA brings her hits and musical magic to New Jersey homecoming show at Prudential Center

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What's the SZA equation?

Fans know it when they hear it.

“Every time when you turn on the radio and you hear an R&B singer and it's new, fresh and unlike anything else that's out there, it's usually a SZA song,” said Joshua Johnson of South Brunswick. “She's doing her thing right now — she's untouched.”

Raised in Maplewood and known for hit singles like “Kill Bill,” “Nobody Gets Me,” “I Hate U,” “Good Days” and “Snooze,” SZA plays a homecoming concert Sunday, Oct. 1, at the Prudential Center in Newark.

Her jazzy free verses, harmony loops, skip rhythms, trippy alt-rock excursions, studio riffs and squeaks, a soulful foundation, and hooks sweeter than milk and honey make SZA's music appealing.

SZA performs during VidCon 2022 in Anaheim, California.
SZA performs during VidCon 2022 in Anaheim, California.

“I think SZA is extremely unique in that she doesn't seem to be following a format,” said Manalapan-raised singer Virginia Cavaliere, a solo performer and member of the Six Appeal vocal group. “She goes through her verses in her songs, and it's almost like it's not in a time signature from a musical perspective. It comes from the heart and it comes from the soul, and by the time the hook comes around it sits right in that pocket and I'm like, 'How did she even get here?' But it all make sense.”

SZA's lyrical connection to her listeners is also unique.

“She's a storyteller in a very modern way,” Cavaliere said. “It almost seems like stream of consciousness or if I'm reading her text messages between her and her boyfriend. ... (SZA's lyrics) makes her very grounded and relatable to the generation now. It doesn't feel like a crazy glamorous celebrity is talking to us — it feels like it could be any of us.”

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SZA's latest album, “SOS,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in December, and broke the record for the largest streaming week for an R&B album in the United States. “SOS” spent 10 non-consecutive weeks on top of the chart, and became the first R&B album to spend its first seven weeks atop the chart since New Jersey native Whitney Houston's “Whitney” held the top spot for seven weeks in 1987.

The “SOS Tour” started Feb. 21 in Columbus, Ohio, and has played arenas in the U.S. and Europe. The second leg of the tour commenced Sept. 20 in Miami. The Jersey show on Oct. 1 does not come without low-simmering drama. SZA was not in attendance at the recent MTV Video Music Awards Sept. 12 at the Prudential Center, even though her “SOS” single “Shirt” won the Best R&B Song Award.

SZA poses with the award for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for "Kiss Me More" during the 64th annual Grammy Awards in Las Vegas on April 3, 2022. She won the award with Doja Cat.
SZA poses with the award for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for "Kiss Me More" during the 64th annual Grammy Awards in Las Vegas on April 3, 2022. She won the award with Doja Cat.

Manager Terrence “Punch” Henderson was annoyed about SZA not being a VMA Artist of the Year nominee.

“Obviously, she had one of the best years, if not the best year, of any artist at this point,” said Henderson to the Hollywood Reporter. “I don’t see why she wouldn’t be nominated for artist of the year. It just really didn’t make any sense to me. It’s disrespectful.”

The nominees were Beyoncé, Shakira, Nicki Minaj, Karol G, Doja Cat and Taylor Swift, who won.

SZA is featured on Drake's new No. 1 song, “Slime You Out,” which is also drawing heat. Actress Halle Berry is upset that Drake used a picture of her slimed at the 2012 Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards as the image for the single. Both Drake and SZA shared the pic on social media.

“Didn't get my permission,” said Berry on social media. “That’s not cool. I thought better of him!”

SZA was born Solána Imani Rowe in 1989 in St. Louis and raised in Maplewood. She attended Columbia High School, the same school as Lauryn Hill, but the experience was not a pleasant one for SZA, she has said.

“I was bullied because I wasn't quiet and I was awkward at the same time,” said SZA to People earlier this year. “I wasn't this tiny sad victim, but I was more so attacked just because it was giving 'What is wrong with you?' energy.

“I always thought, 'Oh my God. I'll never have the approval of anyone in life. This must be my defining factor, this must be the bottom line.' "

SZA, who grew up Muslim, had to stop wearing her hajib after 9/11.

“I stopped covering after 9/11 because I was so scared,” she said to the Muslim Girl website’s Snapchat series in 2021. “This was like elementary school, middle school. I regret so much — like being afraid or caring what people said about me.”

After high school, SZA enrolled at Delaware State University to study marine biology but lost interest after a few semesters. Instead, she started bartending at strip clubs, including Nardone's in Elizabeth, to fund her music career.

“I really disrespected my parents for a long time,” said SZA to Elle. “Me telling my mom I would rather go run in the streets and bartend at the strip club so I can pay for studio time (than go to school). It’s crazy.”

SZA released a SoundCloud mixtape in 2012 and interned with Pharrell William and Nigo’s clothing brand Billionaire Boys Club during a foray into the fashion world. She made a connection with Top Dawg Entertainment, whose artists included Kendrick Lamar. Top dog Henderson heard her voice on a friend's tape and was impressed.

Along the way, SZA released singles, EPs and wrote songs for other artists, including Beyoncé and Rihanna. In 2017, she released the breakthrough album, “Ctrl,” which included the single “Drew Barrymore.”

“Ctrl” debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, and was later certified platinum. Her collab with Lamar, “All the Stars,” for the “Black Panther” soundtrack in 2018, helped define a cultural moment.

Now it's time to come home for her first concert in New Jersey since her appearance at the 2018 Powerhouse NYC show at the Prudential Center.

“A number one album and two songs in the top 10 is NOT what I expected,” said SZA about her “SOS” success in a since-deleted Instagram post, according to Billboard. “I’m bad at celebrating myself, but I wanna thank everybody that rallied around me and positively reinforced me these last few years.”

Go: SZA, 8 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 1, Prudential Center, 25 Lafayette St., Newark, verified resale tickets start at $280 on Ticketmaster;

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Chris Jordan, a Jersey Shore native, covers entertainment and features for the USA Today Network New Jersey. Contact him at @chrisfhjordan;

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: SZA plays New Jersey homecoming show at Prudential Center