Lizzo’s Living Large
Owning your place in the world is difficult, but R&B singer-songwriter Lizzo refuses to play small.
Lizzo is a world-famous singer, songwriter, and flute player. Among her many accolades, she’s won three Grammy Awards, a Billboard Music Award, and a BET Award.
Born Melissa Jefferson in Detroit in 1988, Lizzo studied classical flute as a child, graduating from the University of Houston with a major in classical flute performance. She started rapping as a teenager in Houston, forming her first group at age 14. After college, she started to gain recognition on the Minneapolis underground rap scene, singing with female R&B group Chalice before releasing her solo debut, Lizzobangers, in 2013. She shot to international fame following the release of her third record, Cuz I Love You, in 2019. Her 2017 single “Truth Hurts” topped the Billboard charts two years after its release and her 2016 song “Good As Hell” reached number 3. Time magazine named her Entertainer of the Year for 2019.
Lizzo’s hip hop is infused with elements of soul, R&B, and funk, with lyrics celebrated for their body positivity and empowerment. She has also acted in several films and TV shows, including the animated movie UglyDolls (2019) and the crime comedy Hustlers (2019).
Meet Lizzo, the flutist-turned-rapper-turned-singer whose soulful pop songs have become anthems for a legion of body-positive, emotionally-empowered fans.
Lizzo: The people want realness. The people want authenticity. The people don’t want anything manufactured and I think that’s the only reason why I’m getting to where I’m getting—because I represent something to people that labels can’t fabricate.
Lizzo first made a name for herself as a rapper in the Minneapolis underground scene. These days, she’s signed to Atlantic Records, the label of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Ray Charles in their prime. And she’s used to being in prestigious company. Lizzo sang on Prince’s 2014 album, Plectrumelectrum, and says the experience changed her path in music.
Lizzo: Prince was an extremely positive person and his music was clean, and very uplifting, and very female-oriented. And so, when he passed away, I was like, “I want to, in any way, be a part of that legacy in just making positive music.”
Indeed, each of Lizzo’s albums has marked a specific phase in her personal evolution.
Lizzo: It’s definitely a journey of self. So Lizzobangers was self-discovery, Big Grrrl Small World was self-love, and Coconut Oil is self-care. And I think that we’re on the way to self-actualization and self-realization which is almost like nirvana, like all-knowing. So I think it will be a while before we get there, but it’s definitely a journey of self.
One thing that is common through all of Lizzo’s projects is the flute. The instrument defined her musical life when in 2011, she turned down a scholarship to the Paris Conservatory. But, she still plays.
Lizzo: I’ve played flute on every album I ever put out but it just wasn’t obvious. I had to replay flute samples on Lizzobangers, because it was expensive. So they were like, “Oh, where are we gonna get, you know, we can’t clear these flute samples.” And I was like, “Yes, we can!” So I replayed all the flute samples on Lizzobangers. And then on Big Grrrl Small World, I play flute on a song, but it’s just buried.
AJC: Yeah, I can hear it.
Lizzo: Yeah, so I do still play flute but I don’t play as much as I should.
AJC: So I have sort of a “chicken and egg” question. Do you think your musicality came because you were a flute player, or you became a flute player because you needed to express your musicality?
Lizzo: I became a flute player to express my musicality for sure, because I was writing songs before I started playing flute. I was writing little pop songs with my friends when I was in the third grade.
AJC: Tell me about where the melodies come from. Have you got melodies hanging around in your head all the time?
Lizzo: Yeah. I mean, I think they all come from the same place, like they exist up there, and you just pull them down. I think that it’s more from God, you know?
So strong is her trust in the source that Lizzo has stopped writing down lyrics all together, opting instead for a more stream-of-consciousness approach.
Lizzo: I’m not gonna say everything that you hear is freestyle. Even before I go in, I kind of wanna talk about a specific thing so it’s not just me being like, “Okay.” ‘Cause every song will be, like, about corn dogs ’cause I love corn dogs!
But just because Lizzo trusts what comes off the top of her head doesn’t mean she isn’t thinking deeply about the content of her lyrics. Her song, “Worship,” resonates on multiple levels.
Lizzo: I don’t want a man to worship me. I want society to see a big, black woman like me and respect her, you know? It was my ode to Aretha’s “Respect.” It was necessary, you know? Like, I’m never really talking about dudes ever in this music. But I also know that love is so universal. Love speaks to everyone, and I think that we… I think that everything is a love song, even the ones about policy or injustice. When we’re singing about these things in protest songs, it’s still love, because you want someone to love you, and you just want someone to see you for who you are and respect you. And, when they don’t do that, it feels the same as unrequited love, you know?
AJC: Interesting. I’ve never thought about it like that. Wow, yeah!
AJC: Oh my god.
Lizzo: Yeah, I mean, so all of these songs are love songs but they’re also a part of the struggle, you know? The obligatory black struggle in America because we can’t just take it off, you know? I don’t have to actually say anything in my music to be an activist or to be political. It’s who’s saying it, so—
AJC: But things like “Skin,” is that obviously—
Lizzo: “My Skin” is political. But the title isn’t “Brown Skin,” you know? The title is “My Skin.” And when you say my skin, it means something way different than when I say my skin. When I say my skin, the whole room is like, “Ohh.” The implications are felt. That’s deep. When you say it, they think biologically. They’re like, “Oh, your skin. Yeah, sure, what do you mean? Like, Jergens? Let’s talk about it.” So I think that there’s power in that, because I now feel like I don’t have to be preachy, and I can say things, and be tongue-in-cheek, and it still have weight. But, at the same time, it is a huge responsibility—and a heavy responsibility, sometimes.
But it’s all balanced by Lizzo’s joy in making music—something she was seemingly born to do.
Lizzo: My pitch is pretty good, and the dissonant chords or unresolved chords, just, like, I can feel them in my body. So I’m straight. Like when I’m singing, I’m good.
AJC: Sing “Good as Hell” for me. Sing the opening.
Lizzo: ♪ I do my hair toss, check my nails… ♪