Lizzo: Larger-Than-Life Rapper, Singer, and Social Activist
Inspired by her gut and Missy Elliott, the Midwest homegirl finds her voice on 'Big GRRRL Small World'
On Thanksgiving, Lizzo’s stomach hurt, but it wasn’t because of the one-two gut punch of stuffing and mashed potatoes, like the rest of the country. Until that day, the Houston-bred, Twin Cities-based rapper-turned-singer had been going back and forth with her team about when to release the empowering video for “My Skin,” a hushed spoken-word power stance on body representation that appears on her fiercely genre-bending sophomore LP, Big GRRRL Small World. Then 24-year-old Minnesota man Jamar Clark died at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis’ Fourth Precinct, and Lizzo knew what she had to do. After dropping off extra winter clothing for protesters at the police station, she went home and posted the “My Skin” clip to Facebook, along with an essay (“In the same way people pet my hair and call my afro ‘fun’, black men are seen as ‘dangerous’ and are avoided like it’s second nature,” she wrote) and, on Twitter, she launched a #MySkin campaign asking listeners to submit photos of their own.
“I felt excitement,” she tells SPIN over the phone while packing for her upcoming tour. “When your metabolism is going, and you’re real hungry, and you haven’t eaten in the last two hours or something — it’s that churning. And I was like, ‘Okay, I guess we have to do this.'”
Born Melissa Jefferson, the 27-year-old has always been guided by body talk, which also informed her move from Texas to Minneapolis a few years ago. Broke, homeless, and depressed about a band breakup, Lizzo swallowed her distaste of the frigid Minnesota winters because “the universe wasn’t taking care of me anymore in Houston.” There, she became a part of but also distinct from the city’s legacy of “conscious rap” squads like Doomtree and Rhymesayers.
For Lizzobangers, her 2014 debut album of blustery bass and sesquipedalian verses (“Don’t be presumptuous / I packed you up for lunch and I ate you, you were scrumptious / Literal or not, I’m rambunctious”), she enlisted local producer Lazerbeak and referenced his collection of horn-infused boom-bap instrumentals, Lava Bangers, in her own album title. Despite her repeated insistence that she “doesn’t really fit in” there — primarily as a woman in a historically male-dominated local scene, and one who admits she’s not a “hip-hop-history kid” — Lizzo has integrated herself at least partially with the help of Lazerbeak’s blessing. “If I hadn’t done that, I think Doomtree fans would’ve been, ‘Okay, girl,'” she says, laughing. “[But] even though my styles were miles apart from what was actually popular and successful there, coming out as a rapper in Minneapolis, I was accepted quickly and warmly. They encourage you to collaborate; other places aren’t like that.”
Those that opened their studio doors to her include BJ Burton at Justin Vernon’s April Base and Prince affiliate Stefon “Bionik” Taylor, who also collaborated with Lizzo’s all-female hip-hop collective, GRRRL PRTY, on their lickety-split rattle of an EP, GRRRL PRTY x BIONIK. One of its members, Lizzo’s right-hand woman Sophia Eris, joined her BFF on tour with Sleater-Kinney and nearly steals the spitfire show on Lizzobangers’ bigotry kiss-off “Batches & Cookies.” Both Bionik and Burton filled in the fissures between Lizzo’s disparate interests; in Houston, she simply leapfrogged between them. Growing up on church gospel, learning rhythm and flow from watching Missy Elliott and Ludacris videos (“Articulation is something Ludacris is all about,” she says), and playing the flute in a “very weird” progressive-rock band wasn’t exactly conducive to a sense of belonging. “I never mixed them for social reasons,” she explains. “My friends who would come to the live shows were not my friends that I went to high school with and that I was in rap groups with. When I came to Minneapolis, it was like a smudging tool: I was able to blend it all.”
Big GRRRL Small World, a title lifted from one of the hardest-biting lines in Lizzobangers’ “W.E.R.K. II,” revels in erasing these arbitrary boundaries. Kanye shoutouts (“I make that crack music, nigga / That real black music, nigga,” she sneers in the opening) jostle against her pitch-precise interpretation of the chorus to Ms. Lauryn Hill’s “Ex Factor.” Other verses bump together like hips, with topics including Sojourner Truth, self-love, and fried chicken washed down with a bottle of Seagram’s. Where her first LP dazzled with tongue-twisting entendres from start to breathless finish, her second impresses with how comfortably she settles in: Splitting the difference between Pink Friday and The Pinkprint, Lizzo pivots smoothly from the Lincoln Continental bounce of “Ride” to twinkling candy chords on “Humanize.” “It takes a long time to find your voice, man,” she says. “I’m still slightly trying to, but that’s what Big GRRRL Small World was – I had given my style freedom to be more fluid instead of, like, ‘Rap! Sing!'”
What Lizzo says she does know is what message that voice is trying to convey, whether she’s onstage in the smaller side venue to Minneapolis’ historic First Avenue big room or at Madison Square Garden (playing the latter is a dream of hers). That’s why, even without the cosign of some taste-making website, she released “My Skin” on her own terms. She beamed it directly to the viewers who needed it the most, rather than “dedicating it to some blog.” “There’s a part of me that doesn’t want my stuff to just get lost in all the other Internet stuff,” she says, “and then there’s a part of me that wants to make sure that everything I do, I do with integrity. If it just gets 500 spins or five million spins, I’m happy with the way that it came out. It went to the people who I wanted it to go to.”