“I always say that there’s this magnet for weird people.” That’s how 26-year-old rapper Lizzo describes Minneapolis, the adopted city that helped propel her from relative unknown to the opener on Sleater-Kinney’s much-hyped reunion tour in just a couple years.
For quick background, Lizzo was born Melissa Jefferson in Detroit and grew up in Houston, playing the flute, listening to gospel and Beyoncé, and later singing in an experimental rock outfit called Ellypseas. She eventually moved to Minnesota and, during a bout of writer’s block, found a spark in Lava Bangers, an album of beats by producer Lazerbeak, best known for his work in the hip-hop collective Doomtree. While writing new lyrics over his music, she tweeted at him, saying she’d love to work with him, and soon after she found herself at a party with him, Ryan Olson of Gayngs and Poliça, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. With Beak on the beats and Olson producing, she released her excellent debut, Lizzobangers, in 2013, mixing boastful and playful rhymes with messages about gender, race and politics.
“They’ve been supportive from day one,” she tells Billboard about her pals in the diverse Twin Cities music scene. “It did help me find a weird sound. I like that I’m not typical. I like that I’m called ‘no-genre hip-hop.'”
It’s certainly not wise to pigeonhole Lizzo as another indie rapper from the Midwest. In 2014, she showed off her vocal chops on “Let ‘Em Say,” a spunky duet with fellow Minnesota artist Caroline Smith that celebrates women of all shapes and colors. That body-positive theme is present throughout her album, with her rapping the “big girl, small world” line on both “W.E.R.K. Pt. II” and “T-Baby.” As her profile grew, she also agreed to appear in a video for the website Style Like U’s What’s Underneath series, in which she discussed her life and body while taking off her clothes and wig.
“Everyone looks to an artist for something more than just the music and that message of being comfortable in my own skin is number one for me,” she says. “It’s like, ‘She’s comfortable in her own skin. Can I just put on her music and sing along and pretend I’m like that for a second?’ That’s the story I get from a lot of girls. They say, ‘Thank you for making this body-positive music. Thank you for being a body-positive performer, and thank you for being you.’ That helps me be comfortable. It’s a journey but I’m getting there.”
As her profile grows, she’s also happy to get fewer questions about being a woman in hip-hop. “It’s started to shift because what I stand for is something bigger than saying that I’m a female rapper,” she says. “I feel like I’ve started to create my own culture of being a voice for something and that’s what people want to know about. I love that because I am a woman and because I a rap and I look the way I look, I can connect with the demographic of people who feel like they have a voice in me. I’m glad I’m a woman, I’m glad I’m a rapper because I get to speak to these people who did not get spoken for in this genre.”
Outside of inspiring other women, she’s found fans in a couple of legendary male musicians. Prince enlisted Lizzo and her frequent collaborator Sophia Eris to perform on his PLECTRUMELECTRUM track “BOYTROUBLE,” and the experience sounds like a typical encounter with the Purple One, in that one should always expect everything and nothing. “I’ve actually never met him. I’ve been at Paisley Park when he was there, when he’s been on the speakerphone, but I’ve never physically met him,” she says of their recording session, which took place on Easter Sunday in 2013. “None of that felt real. He said, ‘Pretend like this is your song’ and, I mean, that’s it. Everything else is legend.”
On top of that, she recently received some props from André 3000 after she mimicked his black-and-white Outkast reunion jumpsuits when she performed on the Late Show With David Letterman last October. After seeing him display the message “Big Girls Are Beautiful to Me,” she donned a shirt that said, “I Feel You, André.” “Not only did he see it but it came up in a meeting and they named his art exhibit i feel ya. I feel so connected to something from André 3000. And I’m done. If I never ever meet him, I’m good. Andre’s a legend.”
Which brings us to her current run as the opening act for Sleater-Kinney. Even Lizzo isn’t sure how it came about, though she does remember when she first heard that the trio was reuniting. “I was freaking out. I made sure I sent an e-mail to the talent booker at [legendary Minneapolis club] First Avenue. I was like ‘Sleater-Kinney’s going to be there on Valentine’s Day. Can I please just get on the list?’ I’m sending this e-mail six months in advance, you know? Two months later, my manager calls me and says, ‘Do you want to open on like the craziest tour of 2015?’ and here we are. I’m just blessed.”
So far, she says the tour has been a success, even though many of the Riot Grrrl fans in the crowd aren’t familiar with her. “It’s our job to win them over, especially when you’re on a tour like this that sold out before the supporter’s even announced, where some people have been waiting a very long time to see it,” says Lizzo. On top of making new fans every night, she’s also getting to spend time with Sleater-Kinney. “The girls are the chilliest human beings. I feel this crazy connection with them. They’re hilarious, especially Carrie [Brownstein]. It’s an honor to be able to listen to Corin [Tucker] doing vocal warm-ups because her voice is liquid platinum. After every show I just geek out on them.”
If there’s one completely minor downside to the tour, it’s that Lizzo originally planned to spend these months back in Minneapolis working on her next album with Lazerbeak and Olson. “I’ve written a bunch of new songs I’m so proud and excited about. All I can say is [this new Lizzo] is more mature, she’s happy. The last record has this angry tone, this more political tone. This record has the same but it’s coming from a happy, healthy place. So, she sounds different and the music around her is different. We’ll see.”