Lizzo: rapper, flautist, activist … with charisma to spare

She’s had hard times in the past, but the irrepressible plus-sized superstar from Minnesota is back with a new single that continues her crusade for positivity and never giving up

In the video to her multi-platinum hit single Truth Hurts, Lizzo gets married to herself. She walks herself down the aisle. She slow-dances by herself in a lacy white dress, kicking a balloon out of her path. She feeds herself cake, messily, by hand. “Why a man great ’til he gotta be great?” she asks, deadpan, straight to camera. Then she raises a toast.

Lizzo’s lyrics of self-love are the stuff of motivational posters, her confidence-boosting songs the anthem to a million messy nights out. Her quick wit and warm, generous relatability have made her a global icon – that, and her ability to bring down the house. Crowned Time magazine’s 2019 Entertainer of the Year, Lizzo can put on a show that is by many accounts a life-changing experience. Just ask Rihanna, who has been seen giving her a lengthy standing ovation. After all, who else can twerk and play the flute quite like Lizzo?

Rumors, her first single in two years, following her recordbreaking album Cuz I Love You, is due out on 13 August. It is heralded by a glamorous photograph in which the singer holds a single, bedazzled finger to her lips in a “ssshh”, and Lizzo is calling it the birth of a “new era”. But that new era began for the pop industry when Lizzo first rose to stardom. In January 2020, for a Rolling Stone cover story, journalist Brittany Spanos wrote: “[Lizzo] has become, at 31, a new kind of superstar: a plus-size black singer and rapper dominating the largely white and skinny pop space, all while being relentlessly uplifting and openly sexual on her own terms.”

A multi-hyphenated talent, Lizzo is a rapper-singer-songwriter and classically trained flautist. She would have studied flute at the Paris conservatory but chose to pursue rap instead. She sets fashion trends (see her recently bleached eyebrows), and is a prominent advocate for racial justice, a role-model for body positivity, and such a vocal ally to the LGBTQ+ community that her fans call themselves Lizzbians. In 2020, she won three of the four Grammys she was nominated for. But her path to success has been far from straightforward. To become a “new kind of superstar”, first you have to blaze your own trail.

Born Melissa Jefferson, Lizzo grew up first in Detroit and then in Houston, before moving to Minnesota on the spur of the moment in 2011. She slept in her car, made music in a hip-hop group called the Chalice, and performed local shows. But with the release of her first album, Lizzobangers, in 2013, on a small, artist-run label, it was clear to the music lovers of Minneapolis that they were witnessing the rise of someone special.

Lizzo packs food into boxes, with volunteers, at a warehouse in Yarraville, Australia, on 8 January, 2020.
Lizzo packs food into boxes, with volunteers, at a warehouse in Yarraville, Australia, on 8 January, 2020. Photograph: Foodbank Victoria/Reuters

Longstanding Minnesotan music writer Chris Riemenschneider declared 2013 “Lizzo’s year”, praising her “playful, devious” performance and its mix of “classic, boombox-blasting hip-hop and modern mainstream rap”. He concluded that “another local hip-hop star had been born – and one not at all like the others”.

Unfortunately it took longer for the rest of the industry to catch on to a performer who didn’t fit the generic pop-star mould. In hindsight, Spanos describes this period as a “weird limbo”, “where she was making these excellent records, gaining bigger audiences, becoming Instagram famous, but was struggling to top the charts.”

Her second album, 2016’s Big Grrl Small World, was critically well-received but didn’t help her make the jump from cult-fandom into the mainstream. Truth Hurts, with its bridal video and snappy, instantly memorable lyrics, was released on an EP later that year, but to little fanfare. She told Elle three years later that the lack of response to the song left her completely demoralised: “A tree was falling in the forest and not making a sound, you know? I was crying in my room all day. I said, ‘If I stop making music now, nobody would fucking care.’”

But Lizzo practises what she preaches: when, through her lyrics, she encourages fans not to quit on themselves, it’s based on deep, lived experience. “I’ve always had to turn haters into congratulators,” Lizzo told Billboard’s Julyssa Lopez in 2019. “I’ve never lost that mentality of ‘I have to win you over’.” You get the sense that she includes herself in that statement.

She speaks openly about therapy and her journey to loving herself, as well as the reasons for the positivity in her music. “She’s not a walking inspirational infographic,” wrote comedian and author Samantha Irby in Time magazine. “She knows that part of being enough means acknowledging your imperfections. Which is why it’s such a relief to know that she gets down sometimes – because I know when she gets back up, she’s going to bring us with her.”

The lead track on Cuz I Love You said just as much. “If I’m shining, everybody gonna shine,” she sings on the irrepressible, confidence-boosting Juice, embodying the sunbeam strength of a pep-talk from a best friend. Cuz I Love You turned out to be the perfect vessel for Lizzo’s unique charisma, showcasing her quick wit as well as her wholehearted rejection of genre. It spans vulnerable big-band ballads, Detroit gospel soul, synth-pop anthems and steamy (almost) sex jams, with a swagger and a freakiness that Minnesotan royalty Prince would certainly have approved of.

Her lyrics – “I’m like chardonnay, get better over time!” – were one-two punches of humour and attitude, catchy enough to go viral on their own merit and relatable enough to mumble to yourself in the mirror. Backed up by show-stealing performances at award-shows – including the time she threw a wedding bouquet into the crowd at the BET Awards – Lizzo became certified pop royalty, queen of an upbeat, feelgood trend that Spanos says “she had already perfected and helped to relaunch”.

Lizzo plays the flute at the BET Awards in Los Angeles.
Lizzo plays the flute at the BET Awards in Los Angeles. Photograph: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

But there is a burden in being placed on a pedestal of total positivity, and some of Lizzo’s subsequent public faux pas created more headlines than they might have otherwise deserved. Her angry response on Twitter to a middling review of the album from Pitchfork resulted in media backlash, as did her public complaint about a food delivery driver.

In late 2020, when she went on a 10-day detox, she was accused of not upholding the body positivity standards she set for others. Lizzo eventually swore off Twitter, choosing instead to communicate with her fans via frank, intimate Instagram posts.

It was also on Instagram, two months ago, that she dropped a clue regarding her comeback. Under a picture of the singer, dappled in golden hour sunlight, she asked: “So what’s y’alls fav rumor about me?” Since that hint, she’s been back in the headlines – but this time she’s driving the gossip, with a joke announcement that she is pregnant with Marvel star Chris Evans’s baby. It seems Lizzo’s new Rumors era is about taking even greater control over her narrative and her place in pop culture – without sacrificing the theatrical, self-aware fun of it all.


Katie Hawthorne

The GuardianTramp

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