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Meet our BOTW: Lizzo

“Big girl, small world”: It’s a turn of phrase that crops up repeatedly across Lizzo‘s fiery, aptly-titled debut album, Lizzobangers. Truthfully though, for all its rap-game braggadocio, it’s a bit of a musical misnomer: everything in the Minnesotan rapper’s world is BIG. From the skewed agit-hop of recent single, ‘Batches & Cookies’, to the mile-a-minute maelstrom – and ‘B.O.B.’-reminiscent – ‘Faded’, Lizzobangers is a monumental achievement: a first record that’s appeared fully-formed, rich in character and with a soulful heart of gold.

Perhaps that should come as no surprise, though. The Detroit transplant has led a musical life that’s been impressively diverse – from growing up on soul and gospel to performing in RnB trios (The Chalice), Riot Grrrl groups and even fronting a progressive rock band (Ellypseas).

In the first part of our extended dialogue with the feisty vocalist, we start at the beginning: tracing her musical heritage from learning the flute to arriving on the doorstep of Lizzobangers (co-produced by Lazerbeak and Ryan Olson), via moments of epiphany at Kendrick Lamar and Destiny’s Child shows. 

PlanetNotion: Growing up you drew a lot of inspiration from soul and gospel music before branching out into other genres. What sort of records did your parents used to play around the house and what really caught your ear as a kid?
Lizzo: We used to listen to BeBe & Cece Winans a lot. There was a live album from Perfected Praise, and it started out like, [starts to sing with a preacher-like vigour] ‘Welcome to Perfected Praise’s live recording!’ It was Perfected Praise’s Gospel Choir – which was Ron Winans and family – and I knew it front to back.

My mum and dad also listened to a lot of Stevie Wonder and Queen. It was eclectic around the house but gospel was definitely one of the main influences because of the church that we grew up in. You couldn’t really listen to secular music openly, or else you’d go to hell!

PN: Amongst hearing all this music, was there any particular moment of epiphany in which you realised you wanted to be a musician?
L: I remember when I was younger and living in Detroit, I wanted to be a scientist or a writer; I was on that side. When I came to Houston, I started playing the flute and that’s when I started becoming musical. It was a gradual process; it wasn’t anything sudden. That was, until I saw Destiny’s Child in the fifth grade. At that point, I was like, ‘alright, this is it; this is awesome.’

PN: Lizzobangers immediately struck me as a record brimming with energy and ideas. As your debut solo record, what were you aiming to achieve with it?
L: There are two answers to this: one while it was happening and another looking back on the record in retrospect.

While it was happening, I really just wanted to write again. I’d had a writer’s block and when I listened to Lava Bangers [Album by Lizzobangers co-producer, Lazerbeak], I started to get out of it and write rap again. It was exciting, and when Lazerbeak wanted to go forth with the whole project with Ryan Olson and myself that was even more exciting. I just wanted something for myself and I wanted to create.

Now, in retrospect, when I listen back to the record and I can finally enjoy it because I’m done doing mixing notes, I’ve realised that I was really angry and I had a lot to get off my chest. I feel like I needed to release a lot of emotions that I had not addressed previously in any of my other music. With the musicality of the record, I wanted it to be beautiful – which is why I was attracted to Lazerbeak’s production in the first place – and I just hope that people can see the musicianship of it and that they feel the music. That’s the main goal. You don’t make music so that people can like it but you definitely want to make music that people can enjoy.

PN: You do a lot more rapping here than you have in the past, with The Chalice for example. What was pushing you to move more into that?
L: It’s funny because before the record was fully rap, but I had this moment when I was listening to mixes in the car and Sophia Eris [of The Chalice] said, ‘you could do little singy things here,’ and she gave me a little tip about one song and that just sent me down. I was suddenly like, ‘I can sing on everything’. I started tracking loads of little vocal parts and all those little harmonies that you hear on the record now. Initially though, it was just going to be a rap record.

In The Chalice, Claire de Lune did a lot of the singing and I didn’t get to do so much of it; I was just spitting with Sophia. I think that I took the spirit of that; I was so proud of what I had become as a rapper. You don’t just start out good: you’ve got to practice, you’ve got to get your swag up, and you’ve got to perform for people. You need to learn your styles and history, too. I think at that point, I was very proud of myself as a lyricist and as an MC, and I wanted to showcase that. I did it because I was happy with rhyming and spitting, and I wanted to make a hip-hop record.

PN: What I’ve picked up on listening to the album over these last few weeks is that you have a very unique flow as a rapper, particularly in the way that you line up syllables. Who do you draw inspiration from in that respect?
L: I saw Kendrick Lamar a couple of years ago and he did this little freestyle, and when he was rapping it sounded like he was playing bongo drums. He started doing this really old rhythm that I’ve heard in drums for hundreds of years, and I was like, ‘he’s hitting that like a drum!’ Ever since then, for me, the challenge is when I get a beat, thinking how can I compliment it.

I think the reason why the wordplay is so fun and interesting between myself and Sophia, and a lot of the people I’ve been working with, is because we take the beat and we say, ‘how can we ride it?’ After watching Kendrick do that, it was an epiphany: ride the beat like a drum.

PN: On a completely different tangent from hip-hop, you’re a bit of a fan of progressive rock too and used to be in a prog-rock band called Ellypseas. How’s that fed into what you’re doing now?
L: I don’t know if it comes into things on the production side, but it definitely does with the live show. I learned how to sing in a progressive rock band. I wasn’t the singer in the family; I was the flautist and I started rapping young. But when it came to singing, I started when I was 19 and I joined this band who were loud and weird, and they said to me while auditioning, ‘what can you do?’ I stood at the mic and lied to them, saying I could sing when I really couldn’t. I just started screaming stuff and they loved it. Through that, I started to cultivate and refine it, but I came out like a cannon: I was rolling around on the ground, very much like Cedric Bixler-Zavala from The Mars Volta – off the chain.

I took that into my rap performances in that I would scream and roll around and people were like, ‘woah! This girl really turns up on stage.’ That’s where I learned how to perform, to make people feel me.

It does somewhat show up in Lazerbeak’s beats, too, because he uses a lot of rock samples. On ‘Pants Vs. Dress’, for instance, he uses hard guitars. When you listen to it, I feel it has a multi-genre appeal because there are rock samples on there; there are west coast samples; there’s me rapping and singing. Lazerbeak brought it out of me but it’s definitely not as apparent as when I’m on stage freaking out on people.

- Alex Cull

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Lizzobangers is available now on Totally Gross National Product. You can buy it here.

Lizzo is on tour in the UK this month. Dates below:

12 Nov – Norwich, The Waterfront
13 Nov – Nottingham, Bodega Social Club
14 Nov – Birmingham, Hare & Hounds
15 Nov – Manchester, Sound Control
16 Nov – Leeds, Brudenell Social Club
17 Nov – Hull, Welly
18 Nov – Glasgow, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut
19 Nov – Carlisle, The Brickyard
20 Nov – Bristol,  The Fleece
21 Nov – Milton Keynes, The Crawford Arms
22 Nov – Bedford, Esquires
25 Nov – Portsmouth, Wedgewood Rooms
26 Nov – London, Scala

All dates with Har Mar Superstar.

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