Lizzo is your new fav and you don’t even know it: the 27-year-old rapper is amassing star power through being relentlessly herself. Her videos are splashed with humor and color, her lyrics with obscure and vibrant references, and she even gives out cookies at her shows—as inspired by her hard, insouciant, immensely catchy 2013 hit “Batches and Cookies,” found on her debut LP Lizzobangers. And, though the Detroit native is known as a rapper, her talents are multi-dimensional. On one track you’ll hear her rapping about Sixpence None The Richer and Scooby Doo over new-wave beats and retro rhythms, and on another you’ll hear her hoarse, soulful vocals singing sweetly. It’s not surprising that her music is all over the map: Lizzo’s taste in music isn’t limited—she’s been into Vince Staples and Joanna Newsom’s Divers as of late. She’s a nonconformist in every way.
Lizzo’s real name is Melissa Jefferson. It’s been a slow and steady build for her, but earlier this year she caught the attention of even more listeners after she opened for Sleater-Kinney on their reunion tour. She’s even found a fan in Prince (Lizzo is featured on Prince’s 3RDEYEGIRL album). With Lizzo’s new album BIG GRRRL, Small World out this Friday, we chatted with her about getting advice from the riot grrrl scene, being a “hot commodity” and loving yourself.
JEZEBEL: How do you feel about the current wave of female rappers, and how do you see yourself as being part of or apart from it?
LIZZO: First of all, I don’t like to think about a “female rapper” category. I think that takes us 10 steps backwards. I also see Vince Staples, J. Cole and Chance The Rapper, and I look at them too and try to maintain my own lane. I think that in the industry and in the genre, you have to stay on your road and on your path. I can never really see myself from the outside, and I like to think that sets me apart from a lot of people because I don’t want to be in their lane.
You’re a role model for other musicians. Do you feel like you can’t make mistakes sometimes?
I guess. I don’t really know what a “mistake” to someone who looks up to me as a role model would be. I try my best to live a good life, and I’m not the type of artist where I have paparazzi following me, so you didn’t see me out with people last night doing shots of whiskey with my friends. I’m not truly highlighted out there. So you only see what I put out—and what I’m putting out now a strong, positive message for women and girls like me. What I’m putting out there is the message that I would like to be respected. When I get to a level when I’m scrutinized a little bit more, I probably will feel the pressure to be on my p’s and q’s, but for now it’s really not a problem, and I’m grateful for that.
And it seems like you’ve got it together. You most recently toured with Sleater-Kinney. Did they give you any sage advice?
They’re the coolest girls in the world, and they’re so talented. We learned by just watching them. It was never like, “Come here kids, let me give you some secrets,” because their first night was our first night. Carrie [Brownstein] was like, ‘I’m really nervous. This is our first night in a long time.” Normally, I would imagine that a band on their level had been playing a bunch with secret shows and stuff, but they chose to start their first night with us. That was really special, and I was so honored. We all kind of grew together—every night we got better and better. We watched them and took notes. They’re fans are the best people in the world.
Were you a fan of Sleater-Kinney before you toured with them?
I was not. I was not hip to the riot grrrl movement until The Punk Singer came out. My DJ Shannon Blowtorch was like you should watch this movie. It was amazing. I knew who Carrie Brownstein was, and I know Lance Bangs, who is Corin’s husband, but I didn’t know about Sleater-Kinney. I feel like I was late to the party, but I’m definitely at the party now.
Carrie Brownstein has a great memoir out—have you read it?
No! I haven’t. I gotta get it and read it. Questlove said something like, “It’s amazing to find your musical twin.” I was like, “Oh my god, I gotta get this book.”
You did an episode of Style Like U’s “What’s Underneath Project” where you talked about learning to love your body: you talked about being little, and watching Sailor Moon, dreaming of just waking up and “looking like that, with the long hair and crazy long legs, and they were white, or Asian, just a whole different person—a fantasy, versus something I could look in the mirror and hate.” You also talked about dysmorphia, seeing yourself as bigger than everyone else—and learning to turn that sense of being bigger into a positive thing.
The Style Like U “The What’s Underneath Project” kind of took me by surprise because I didn’t really do my research. When I got in there and they’re like “You have to take off your clothes.” I was like, “Okay, well, let’s go.” So, I did it. At that point, I was like if anyone wants to know what I look like with no clothes on, they just can go on the internet and see it. That gave me a whole different type of confidence with owning myself because there are no secrets, no girdles, there’s no contouring and there’s no airbrushing. I just decided to own up to that. The secret’s out.
Though you’re from Detroit, you’ve lived in a lot of different cities. Is there one city’s music you’ve internalized the most?
Well, that’s hard because Detroit and Houston were both so crucial to the type of music I make now. I will say I absorbed a lot of music in Houston. Not being a professional musician and living in Houston, being a teenager and listening to the radio, was definitely the age of my peak musical absorption. Now everything else is research. I was able to enjoy music. I did—tons of it. I enjoyed all of the Houston rappers to the indie-rock bands to NSYNC and Backstreet Boys. Things like that I absorbed heavily and use now.
So, how’d you come up with the title of your record, and what’s the message you want women to get out of it?
Well, Big GRRRL Small World comes up a lot [in my music]. If you listen to the new record, there’s a whole song called “BGSW.” It’s cool because I had my first solo rap song in Minneapolis and the first line is “Big girl, small world.” I wrote it down to be cheeky or bold, but I was afraid to actually say it because I was like, “Am I setting myself up? Are people gonna be like, like ‘OK fatso’? Are people gonna start calling me names because of it?” I decided right then to just claim it before someone else could over me.
After that, it kind of evolved into its own sort of thing. There’s all sorts of people, thin, chunky, male or female that like to refer to themselves as “big grrrls.” I think that’s cool because now, it doesn’t stand for your size—it’s not even a subculture of the beauty standard because we are the majority. The people who look like us are the majority. The people who look like the media beauty standards are definitely a minority and most of them don’t exist because it’s all Photoshop. I think it’s a beautiful thing because I feel like [the phrase] going to expand and grow. I think when people hear the record, they’re gonna get it.
Obviously you’ve been cited as a very body-positive feminist, but what’s your definition of feminism? What does it mean to you?
That’s something only in the last two years that I’ve decided to call myself. I was like, “I’m a humanist.” I didn’t understand feminism and I had some very good friends teach me and I read books because I didn’t want to ignorantly claim something. Then I realized in that process that feminism is personal and it’s something that inspires community within a community of people who were treated like crap for a very long time. It’s about equality and fairness mostly above all.
I think sometimes when things happen I’m like, it’s just not fair and we should do something about it. when you do something about it, that’s feminism. I think that every day when I tour with a 98% female group of female group, that’s feminism. Promoting unity when society literally wants to pin us against each other, I think that’s important. I hope that what I’m doing, and the work I’m doing is feminism. I feel like I can’t really define it because it’s part of a movement. It’s always changing. Feminism has been changing in so many different ways, and I’m excited to be a part of this wave of feminism.
Have you ever felt dismissed as a female rapper?
No, actually. I felt like a hot commodity for a long time. Every time there’s a Missy Elliott, a Lil’ Kim or an Eve, it goes away for a while: they’re like ‘It’s just her now. she’s the queen—no one else can be a woman and rap right now.” And I realize that’s special. I know that it sucks that we don’t really get to breakthrough that much—there are so many women who rap who don’t get a platform or pedestal. There’s always Nicki Minaj, whose fabulous, but there’s always just one queen crowned which I think comes from a major insecurity, because everybody in the male-dominated industry only wants to let one queen in. If we were all at the top, they’d be in trouble. We’d be getting all the album sales.
But I always felt like a hot commodity—I felt like what I was doing was needed and very necessary. I felt like I mattered more. I feel lucky and blessed to be a woman—and also to rap and sing and care about what I care about. I feel like it’s going to be needed in whatever scale. If this is the level I stay at or if it gets bigger or smaller, I needed to do this.
What’s the theme of your record? Was there anything particularly challenging for you to write about?
The theme of the record is self-discovery. I feel like so many people who have heard it have told me that. I will say that no song is hard, but I think I had a lot of difficulty with “BGSW.” The verses came out easy, but trying to make the song make sense was a tough nut to crack. Lyrically though, I feel like “Humanize” was really emotional and it exposed me a little bit. I felt embarrassed to sing it.
I don’t know. It’s a different voice—I’m not singing super big or rapping at all. I’m singing really quietly. The lyrics I pulled from very personal experiences. It’s like reading out of your diary with a baby voice.
What do you want people to come away from this record with?
I just want people to like my music and like themselves. That’s it. If you want to laugh at me, talk about my hair and my body, that’s cool, but at the end of the day, you need to feel good about yourself. You don’t need to feed into the lies that are constantly told to make us feel “less than.” That’s the point: I want somebody to get it. Hopefully, me and a few other people out there who are doing it will get that message across.
Image by Garrett Born
Ilana Kaplan is a cat-loving, music-obsessed writer living in Brooklyn. You can find her bylines in Rolling Stone, T Magazine, Refinery29, The Village Voice, etc, and her Twitter at @lanikaps.