Destiny Rising: In Conversation With Lizzo

Minneapolis rapper talks to Clash…

Internet comments. What are they good for? Typically a cavalcade of hot-aired one-upmanship, outright snobbery and blinkered balderdash, scouring the below-video text on a popular YouTube page is a sure-fire way of sending yourself mad. And yet, sometimes these interactions can say everything you feel in a handful of the words you’re trying to find.

“WOW! It’s off the hook! Seriously good – fun, sad and clever all at once. This is a must-own album for anyone who wants quality lyrics with real feeling and meaning.” So reads the single customer review beneath the Amazon listing for Lizzo’s ‘Lizzobangers’ debut album. Five stars. Yeah, we’ll go with that.

“A banger can be any genre,” bubbles the Minneapolis-based rapper born Melissa Jefferson when Clash sits down with her to discuss what’s been, what will be, and the definition of a banger in the post Miley’s album-with-a-Z climate. “And it can also be a sausage!” It sure can, Lizzo, it sure can. And?

“Sometimes you hear a rock song that you really like, and it’s a banger, you know what I mean? ‘Lizzobangers’ comes from all of my influences: from Detroit, where I grew up on gospel, to Houston where I heard a lot of R&B and pop, and then the screw-it-up music, and now Minneapolis, where there’s all kinds of weird music. Minneapolis is into weird stuff, in the best way. I think Prince started that trend.”

Ah, Prince. The man who made Minneapolis funky, long before Lizzo was even born (1988 says Wikipedia, if you’re into such information). “I know Prince is real, but if I daydream about him, he’s like a vapour,” muses the perma-smiling Miss Jefferson. “He’s a purple vapour. He’s everywhere. Not in the literal sense of him being gaseous – I don’t think he even farts. I think he is perfect.”

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'Faded'

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We’re getting off-topic. Aren’t we? Yes. Yes we are. Which is hard, given the instantly appealing personality Lizzo exudes. We’ve known her for five minutes and it feels like we’re best pals – she’s that sort of person, immediately open about herself and her music, able to address the darkness that lies within her material with a smile born of where she finds herself today: about to take on the world. But although her tongue-twisted rap talents seem innate, present since birth, she wasn’t always public with her love of the music carrying her onto global stages.

“I grew up in the church, back in Detroit, so there were a lot of things we couldn’t do. We couldn’t go to the movies, or to baseball games, and we couldn’t wear red to church. Baseball, that’s the Devil’s game! I can’t say that it was crazy, because it’s the way it was and it’s the way my great grandmother raised the entire family. I only knew about Tupac after he died, as I was sheltered from a lot of that.

“I moved from Detroit when I was 10, to Houston, and the family wasn’t there – all of my cousins and my grandparents, they were still in Detroit. It was just the five of us, and we all got the chance to explore different things. I was really into classical music – I’m a flautist – and I was listening to that and some other stuff, and my sister was listening to Radiohead and Incubus, which at the time seemed like really challenging stuff. She would get into trouble a lot, because my family thought this was the Devil’s music. There was all kinds of craziness.”

She sips a drink – a bloody Mary right now, to be chased by an alcoholic ginger beer, which she finds the very idea of deliciously incredulous, and continues.

“I remember, when I started to pursue rap music, I wouldn’t cuss – and I still don’t do that much today. I was reluctant to let my Detroit family know that I was a rapper. They thought I was a flute player, exclusively. But I’d sing in church. I didn’t want them to know I was rapping, and I didn’t want them at my first few shows in case I said anything wrong. But at a certain point my mum told me, ‘I love you, and if this is what you want to do then I respect you, and it, and go get it!’ She’s way happy with it now, she’s telling me I can do anything I want to.

“But there was a whole lot of trepidation at the beginning. What were they gonna think? I tried to find some ways to bring God into my raps but that didn’t feel right, and you can’t force that. When you listen to ‘Lizzobangers’, there are hints of something quite spiritual in there, but who doesn’t make references to their beliefs? It was a challenge, though – I didn’t want to make a Christian rap album! But I played Detroit for the first time with Poliça and some of my cousins came and it was really nice. We’re gonna keep it moving forward, and I’m not gonna go to hell for making this music, I realise that too… Though it is a little hot in here.”

Lizzo’s connections with Poliça run deep. Not only is she friendly with the indie act’s members, but the band’s Ryan Olson, also of Gayngs and Marijuana Deathsquads, co-composed ‘Lizzobangers’ and released it, originally, through his own Totally Gross National Product label.

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"I am more vulnerable up there. Like, every night I have to talk about my dad passing away, and I relive that. The audience connects to that."

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“This is a collaborative record,” confirms the girl with her face on the record’s cover. “‘Lizzobangers’ is one part Lazerbeak (aka Doomtree’s Aaron Mader, Minneapolis DJ and producer) production, one part me saturating the tracks with vocals, and one part Ryan Olson’s composing. We created this record together. It was so perfectly well blended, taking everyone’s own influences. I didn’t create these beats in a room and track them out – we all got to do it together.” 

Lyrically, though, ‘Lizzobangers’ is all Jefferson. Themes criss-cross throughout, with some songs shot through with appealing levity, others bearing the weight of real-life heartaches. “There are high moments, where we’re shaking our butts and dancing,” she confirms, “and these low points where it’s very…”

A pause. A reset. A breath. Composure. “Like, I’m reliving the song again, so do you all feel me? There’s a complex range of emotions that comes out every single night [when I perform], and I dunno… I think that there’s the hip-hop persona in me, where I’ma shake my butt and make everyone put their hands in the air and then I’m gonna leave. That’s a job. But I am more vulnerable up there. Like, every night I have to talk about my dad passing away, and I relive that. The audience connects to that.”

How can they not. Lizzo, live, is a fireball. She’s not here to confront the punters in an aggressive sense – she wants to make them dance, dammit. “I’ve always been very in people’s faces,” she says. “Even at my first solo show, I felt so confident. But afterwards a friend of mine, a rapper too, came up to me and he said: ‘I only have one piece of advice for you, and that’s that you don’t have to let everyone know who you are for the whole time you’re up there.’ And he didn’t mean literally, with me introducing myself all the time, but more like how I was rapping at people. Like: listen to me!”

And then comes the reveal – the early bravado was hollow bluster, a mask. “But I wasn’t confident, properly confident, for a long time. I was just really good at faking it.” Nowadays, Lizzo is a more controlled presence – under lights and down the pub. She lightly stalls answers when she needs to, to let the question sink in. She’s professional, and personable – she strikes the balance like someone with years of experience. And while she’s not been doing this long, but she’s been preparing for it since forever.

“Destiny’s Child are my number one influence, and after that I formed so many girl groups,” she reveals. “I skipped school in fifth grade to go and see them perform. What was huge to me is how they were in the pop charts, but still spiritual. Those girl groups of mine, though, they were a long time ago. They had silly names, like Peace, Love & Joy. We each had one of those names, and we were like The Spice Girls. I was Peace, I think, and my friend Mary was Joy… No! I was Joy. I got the nickname Lizzo in eighth grade. I was rapping at 13. We were a trip. Then I did rock for a while, before starting The Chalice with Sophia Eris, and all these other groups. I’ve actually been writing since fifth grade.”

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'Batches & Cookies'

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Eris guests on Lizzo’s breakthrough single, ‘Batches & Cookies’. The track – light-hearted at its core, almost novelty-like of vibe – could send out the wrong message to might-be admirers: that ‘Lizzobangers’ was all about the LOLs over the legitimate messages. But this is a set bolstered by passages of female empowerment. The zesty ‘W.E.R.K. Pt II’ addresses issues of feminism, and how the term can be so easily misused at the expense of properly liberating girls looking to “work like a boss”.

“I think that feminism is fairness,” she states. “If it’s okay for a man to be on stage, shaking his butt with a bunch of scantily clad booty dancers, wearing all these chains or whatever, then it’s okay for a woman to do the same without being slut-shamed.

“Do I feel comfortable being a positive influence? Well, there are so many little girls who look up to people like Miley Cyrus, and others who do things that I wouldn’t do. I mean, you’re not gonna see me in a tiny top and some bikini bottoms, but that’s because I’m not as confortable with my body as Miley is hers. I am more than happy with being a role model, but within that role I also need to be supportive of other women who are making changes. I’m not saying that what Miley is doing right now is making any kind of change, but I hope that later down the line she will, with her voice. Everyone needs to find themselves, and she’s just 20. When I was 20, let’s not even talk about it!”

Getting behind ‘Lizzobangers’ for a 2014 push into the mainstream – deserved, undoubtedly – is Virgin, who are reissuing the album, slightly altered (“We took two songs off and added two songs, and remixed ‘Faded’,” she confirms), in the summer. 

“I don’t feel any different now that I’m on a major. The only difference is that sometimes I’ll go on Facebook and someone has posted something there for me. Like, where’d all this flashy stuff come from? I know everyone at the label, their names and faces, and it feels like a family. They’re doing so much for me that allows me to just be an artist, and perform. And I think that’s a blessing. I don’t feel any weird pressure, or that they’re making me into something I’m not. We’re all here for the same reasons. They let me be myself.”

And being herself is working out just fine so far for Lizzo. She’s off the hook alright, and ready to use the barbed licks of her wicked songs to snare a good many new fans. Fun and clever, sure. But sad? With a smile like hers, you’d have to say that any dark days are over, further five-stars waiting on the horizon.

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Words: Mike Diver

The new version of ‘Lizzobangers’ is released in June. Find her online here and see Lizzo live in the UK as follows:

May
3rd - Live At Leeds
8th - The Great Escape, Brighton

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