August 31, 2018 10:00am
Lizzo: “I’m a bad bitch, right?”
Lizzo’s funk-inflected hip hop has endeared her to Missy Elliott, Ru Paul, Macaulay Culkin and even the late Prince. With a couldn’t-be-more-2018 message of self-love and positivity exemplified by recent single ‘Boys’, the one-time indie star has found a unique voice – and new levels of fame as a result. But that doesn’t mean she’s in any rush to release her debut album, she tells Nick Levine.
“What the fuck is a cucumber sandwich?” asks Lizzo, looking unimpressed as she bites into one.
It’s old-fashioned British, I tell her. The kind of thing they’d serve at Downton Abbey.
“That shit is disgusting. That shit nasty, bro. What the fuck did I just eat? I’d have preferred if it was pickles and cream cheese. Pickle’s got some bite to it.”
No one could accuse Lizzo of lacking bite. The singer-rapper born Melissa Viviane Jefferson a little over 30 years ago has a firecracker personality which inflames the room. Within minutes of arriving at NME’s photo and interview session in a north London hotel, she gets everyone laughing with her salty humour and hilarious impression of a [completely fictional] confused Jay Z.
The Minneapolis-based musician has no problem conveying this charisma on record. After stints in several local indie bands, her 2013 solo debut ‘Lizzobangers’ lived up to its awesome title and caught the ear of Prince, who asked Lizzo to guest on his 2014 album ‘Plectrumelectrum’. Lizzo went even deeper on her 2015 follow-up ‘Big Grrrl Small World’, proving she could rap over trap beats and sing an old-school soul chorus with equal aplomb. She’s also, incidentally, a classically-trained flautist.
Then came her major-label debut, 2016’s ‘Coconut Oil’ EP, which yielded her biggest hit yet, the infectious, horn and piano-led ‘Good As Hell’. “If he don’t love you anymore, just walk your fine ass out the door,” Lizzo sings like a straight-talking older sister. Earlier this year, RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants Monét X Change and Kameron Michaels performed a brilliant ‘lip-sync for your life’ to this soulful empowerment bop while Lizzo, smashing it as the show’s guest judge, watched on proudly.
But back to today. After finishing the last few disappointing crumbs of her cucumber sandwich, Lizzo looks me in the eye and asks, “So, what do you want to know?”
Well, first things first, what do you want people to think when they hear the name Lizzo?
“I want them to think, ‘That bitch.’ I want them to think, ‘She’s got the range.’ I want them to think, ‘I like her fucking music!’ That’s it. Hahaha!”
“’I’m learning how to take care of myself, how to love myself and how to communicate with myself. And I think that is making me feel worthy and wanted. And if I feel worthy and wanted, then everybody gonna want to eat my pussy”
Photo credit: Michael Prior
Though she radiates confidence today, in the past Lizzo has spoken about feeling “unwanted” and “unchosen”. What caused this?
“I think it’s because society insisted that fat black girls were undesirable,” she replies. “Maybe I’m sensitive, but constantly seeing messages telling me I wasn’t beautiful finally got to me. But I feel very fortunate now to be discovering myself, even though that can be such a painful process. In my self-discovery I’m learning how to take care of myself, how to love myself and how to communicate with myself. And I think that is making me feel worthy and wanted. And if I feel worthy and wanted, then everybody gonna want to eat my pussy.”
We both laugh. This is another of Lizzo’s gifts: being able to round off a serious point with something funny and outrageous. Still smiling, I press on. Does she have to keep working at her self-discovery process?
“Uh-huh,” she says with a nod. “If I lose sight of myself for a minute, and I forget me, I’ll be doing some dumb shit, bro. I’ll be doing unhealthy things and the selfless shit where I’m going out of my way for somebody who’s not replenishing me, you know? Every morning you have to centre yourself and remember you have needs. We forget that we have needs because we’re so artsy-fartsy and higher-conscious. But it’s like, no bitch, you need water and you need sunlight and you need rest – just like this fucking cactus.”
Lizzo gestures to a cactus on the table between us. “This cactus might not be making a fucking hit song, but this cactus is chill and doesn’t have fucking anxiety. He’s not stressing himself out over no bitch-ass fuck-boys, you know what I mean?”
When Lizzo’s on her A-game, I doubt any fuck-boy would stand a chance. Her latest single ‘Boys’ is a lusty summer jam that celebrates her varied taste in males while doubling up as a lowkey inclusivity anthem. “From the playboys to the gay boys, go and slay, boys, you my fave boys,” she raps flawlessly.
“That song I wrote like three years ago,” she tells me today. “It felt to me very braggy and I just wasn’t in that place then. I wasn’t a baller, I wasn’t pimping, I was pretty lame to myself. I was in LA for the first time trying to get shit together, just working my ass off. I was like, ‘This ain’t even a reflection of my life right now, so I put the bitch [track] on ice.’ Fast forward to this year and I play this song to my managers and they’re like, ‘Woah, what the fuck?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s time.’ I looked around at my life and I was pimpin’ and I was ballin’ and I was using men like gloves – ha! – and I was like, this is who I am right now.’
Lizzo pauses for a second, then says more thoughtfully: “The smartest thing you can do as an artist is know that everything is about timing. I could have put this song out three years ago, but I wouldn’t have been able to make the bomb-ass video I’ve made for it now. And I wouldn’t have had the momentum that I have in my career now. So ‘Boys’ wouldn’t have had the reach to the LGBTQ community and the reach to other the people who needed to hear it. The universe was like, ‘Be patient, bitch, wait until you’re getting all these motherfucking boys and girls, and then put it out.’ So I listened to the universe and waited and now everyone loves it.’
Lizzo says this isn’t the only time she’s kind of “predicted the future” in a song.
“I used to drop Macaulay Culkin’s name in my raps because… it’s Macaulay Culkin,” she recalls. “And then years later, I toured with Macaulay Culkin.”
“Yeah, I toured with Pizza Underground – his Velvet Underground covers band. That was amazing, and then he was in my music video for ‘Faded’. He’s really supportive and one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life. Not just because he’s Macaulay Culkin, but because he is an awesome human being. But I used to rap about him, and then I ended up knowing him. What the fuck?”
“When I saw Missy Elliott as a kid, I saw myself.
She made me realise, yes, I can do it”
Photo credit: Michael Prior
Lizzo’s fanbase is growing (she now has over 230,000 Instagram followers), and it includes not just Macaulay Culkin but Missy Elliott, with whom she’s worked on several tracks for her upcoming album. “When I saw Missy Elliott as a kid, I saw myself,” Lizzo says today. “She made me realise, yes, I can do it!” But she’s definitely struck a chord with the LGBTQ community, and recently appeared on the cover Gay Times magazine. Why does she think she’s really connected with this community?
“Because we’ve all felt marginalised. We’ve all felt the same type of struggle and identity crisis and unsure footing in a society that tells us we’re not good enough and not the standard,” she replies. “And I think that celebrating diversity and realising parallel struggles, so we can all relate to others sense of feeling marginalised, that’s going to create a new community. And when we start doing that, we’re really going to move to a place of change. Right now, we’re just in progress and in a place of growth. And growth is uncomfortable and ugly and stinky and we’re definitely going through a very hormonal growth spurt. But this will all lead to change, and I think the LGBTQ community embracing me as an ally speaks to that change.”
Lizzo continues, becoming even more passionate. “I wanna tell anyone out there who cares about me: ‘I promise to change just as much as you are.’ Humans change, humans err, humans get shit right sometimes. Humans are fucking complicated. I think that if the human race was a person, right now they’d be a teenager doing a lot of fucked up shit. They’re maybe not the most attractive person right now. But they’re going to grow into an amazing adult and hopefully start making some mature decisions.”
Lizzo is fully aware of the platform she has, telling me: “I have a very powerful mouth and I have very powerful words, so when I say certain things, I make sure I mean it.” Because of this, she also strives to make her music as inclusive as possible.
“Like for instance, the original lyric in [last year’s single] ‘Truth Hurts’ was: ‘I will never ever ever ever be a side-chick.’ But then I was like, ‘That’s not fair to people who ended up in situations where they became a side-chick.’ Shit happens, you know, so why would I wanna exclude someone from liking my song because I say that one line? So I changed the lyric to ‘your side-chick’. It’s little things like that that I’m very conscious of. I’ve felt excluded from things my whole life, so my job is to never let anyone else feel that way.”
“When women from my kind of background reach out to me and say, ‘Where have you been all my life? You’re my mood, you’re helping me feel myself!’, that makes me feel like I’m finally getting into my purpose””
Photo credit: Michael Prior
Though Lizzo says she doesn’t think of herself as a role model, she’s proud some people look to her guidance – Vogue even hailed her as a “body-positive icon”.
“I get messages from fans all the time,” she says. “I love them all equally, but the ones that really get me are from black women. I guess it’s because my music was indie-leaning for so long and I was in Minnesota, so my fanbase was white. I’m really grateful for that fanbase – they’ve supported me from the start and they continue to support me. But I’m a fat black woman from Detroit who grew up in Houston, and I make music from my experience for my experience. That includes everyone, you’re all welcome to my experience, but what I’m saying is my music is very personal. So when women from my kind of background reach out to me and say, ‘Where have you been all my life? You’re my mood, you’re helping me feel myself!’, that makes me feel like I’m finally getting into my purpose. And I think my purpose is bringing change to the people who need it the most.”
At the moment, Lizzo’s purpose is also working on her new album, but she says she’s in no rush to get it out. “Missy gave me the best advice,” she explains. “She told me to take my time. And honey, you’re not gonna see an album from me until it’s ready because of that!”
But I ask if she has any kind of plan – a five-year plan maybe?
“Five-year-plan? Everyone keep asking me that here, it’s an English thing. Y’all be making five year plans and shit and drinking tea.”
And eating cucumber sandwiches.
“Ugh, that shit was horrible. Listen bro, I’m a musician – I studied music in college and I’m a flautist. My dream was always to perform, whether that was at a classical concert hall or at [iconic New York venue] Radio City Music Hall. So my five-year plan, I’m rollin’ it. My five year plan, I did that. So now I just need to make more money. You gonna pay me for this? Hahahaha!”
With our time coming to an end, I ask if the music industry has made her feel unwanted and unchosen.
“They’re the root of the problem!” she says empathically. “The industry drives the media and the media drives society. But now I’m face-to-face with the beast and I’m looking at the beast and saying, ‘Listen bitch, you gonna love me and you gonna fucking give me money and help me live my dreams because I’m a bad bitch, right?’ And the beast is like, ‘All-right, bitch.’ I’m lowkey trying to kill the beast but we gotta be friends first. Right now, I guess I’m the Trojan horse.”