Under no circumstances will Lizzo play “Flight of the Bumblebee” tonight. Don’t get her wrong. She’s a classically trained flautist, in addition to a singer and rapper, and could twerk circles while playing it (that’s a trademark). But as far as songs go, “ ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ is for basic bitches,” declares Lizzo, and tonight she needs a show-off song.
It’s two hours before a live taping of 2 Dope Queens’ HBO special, and hosts Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson have asked her to perform her signature move, but the stakes — HBO, the 3,000-person-deep audience at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre — call for the kind of song that will make eyes widen, jaws drop. Normally, the trill-filled missile in Lizzo’s arsenal is 19th-century French composer Jean-Baptiste Arban’s “Carnival of Venice,” a song that requires the lung capacity of a runner trained at high altitude and the ability to double-, sometimes triple-, tongue. Except a producer just apologetically entered the dressing room to tell her she’s so so sorry, but she can’t play that particular song. Something about legal. Clearance. Rights.
What to play? she wonders aloud in a mild panic to the eight or so people milling about. The producer helpfully starts suggesting other legally cleared songs. “How about ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’?”
People are often surprised that Lizzo can actually play the flute. At 30, she’s been playing for 20 years, since she was a preteen in her Houston junior high school’s marching band and people would tell her “that shit is corny!” She went to the University of Houston on a music scholarship. She practices four hours a day when her schedule permits. The flute even has its own Instagram account, @sashabefluting (it follows no one). She’s played on most of her albums, starting with 2015’s Big GRRRL Small World, and does so again on her forthcoming major-label release, Cuz I Love You, which drops this spring.
The junior-high punks might have called her corny, but like most hobbies people mock you for in adolescence, it’s now one of her greatest assets. The flute is earning her Shade Room–blessed viral fame, especially after one particularly notable moment from a performance at the University of Iowa’s homecoming. As she tells it, that video was born out of a direct challenge to her ability to play the flute — or to perform at all. During sound check, a professor threatened to report her to campus police unless she showed permits. “The privilege that you have to have to walk up to young women, brown women, black women, and yell, ‘Do you have a permit to be here?’ While we’re clearly onstage with microphones singing and dancing,” says Lizzo, shaking off phantom pangs of annoyance. She was so fired up that night, she told the audience the story, then ripped into a flute reworking of “Big Shot,” from Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther soundtrack, while she and her two dancers, dubbed the Big GRRRLS, hit the shoot with more ferocious joy than BlocBoy JB ever had, even though he invented the dance. She ended by lobbing her trademark “Bitch!”
“That ‘Bitch!’ was from the bottom of my heart,” Lizzo tells me. “That was for anybody who tries to stop my shine and tries to challenge my existence. Don’t challenge my motherfucking right to be here, bitch.” She posted a video with the caption “have u ever seen a bitch play flute then hit the shoot?” And since nobody had, it got half a million views. People started making Lizzo flute YouTube mash-up videos. She released a single version of it called “Bye Bitch.”
When Lizzo plays the flute, it’s a gentle “Fuck you, yes I can,” to everyone who is surprised to see her take the stage in a spandex bodysuit and play a song by an old Frenchman. She knows she’s doing something with the instrument that nobody’s ever done (please see: recent Instagram videos from her album-listening party in an L.A. strip club — a singular moment in flute-performance history). Her career has been full of those kinds of expectation-defying swerves, ones that shock, delight, and challenge preconceptions. And not just ours, but her own. “I’ve said it before, but me just existing is revolutionary,” she says again. People think they know what to expect from a pop star, but then they meet Lizzo.
She pulls out her beloved Sasha Flute (so named for Beyoncé’s third album, Sasha Fierce) and begins to run scales. “I could play some fake jazz shit, but that’s boring.” She improvises some exaggerated riffs in the key of Anchorman. Finally she decides to play “Bye Bitch,” in tribute to her viral moment. She tests a few bars, making sure she can play and clap cheeks at the same time. She can.
In January, Lizzo released “Juice,” an energetic funk affirmation that should have Bruno Mars watching his throne. When she sings, “If I’m shinin’, everybody gonna shine,” in the song’s bridge, it’s both an earworm and a mission statement. By her own declaration, Lizzo has been at the forefront of the positive movement. Which positive movement? All of them. She’s sex positive, body positive (hers and yours), vocally practices self-love and self-care. “I am a pioneer in creating modern self-love, body-positive music,” she explains, which could ring cheesy — or, worse, totally disingenuous. But it isn’t just the modern twists she puts on old self-help sentiment (e.g., “I just took a DNA test; turns out I’m 100 percent that bitch”) that keep it from teetering over the line. It’s the fact that Lizzo has been teaching herself to be 100 percent that bitch since she was Melissa Jefferson, a self-described dorky, overweight preteen.
Lizzo’s family moved to Houston from Detroit when she was 9. Her parents worked long hours building a succession of businesses, and her two older siblings were often doing their own thing, so music was an early babysitter. In sixth grade, “the flute chose her,” when her school’s band director asked Lizzo if she wanted to learn the instrument. At 14, she formed her first rap group, the Cornrow Clique, with two of her classmates and got her nickname, Lizzo. (She was originally Lissa, but Jay-Z’s “Izzo” was a popular song at the time.) She could rap — which should have made her popular — but she was in marching band, so she wasn’t. Also she smiled too much and laughed too loud. Sometimes she wore hippie clothes, like flowing shirts and bell-bottom jeans. She listened to Radiohead and Death Cab for Cutie because her older sister did. She wore Uggs, the tipping point. Her classmates said she was “too white.” “But like, Lil Wayne also wore Uggs,” she points out.
She started college in 2005, but by her junior year, she felt trapped by all of the boxes she was trying to fit herself into. Was she an AKA, making the rounds at all the historically black sorority and fraternity parties? Was she the rapper performing at late-night shows? Was she pursuing the flute professionally and committing to 7 a.m. master classes? She couldn’t make all those identities fit together, so she dropped out. Her parents had moved to Denver, and without the dorms, she often slept in her car, a T-boned 1990s Subaru. But the universe always offers another weird portal — and a floor to sleep on. In 2008, she joined her first real band, playing the flute in the prog-rock-inflected Ellypseas. “I dead-ass asked them if they wanted to get on MTV.” They did not. She didn’t realize it then — or maybe she was afraid to admit it — but those were her ambitions. The band never made it to TRL, but it was good enough to book shows at South by Southwest.
She slept at the band’s rehearsal space, sometimes on the drummer’s floor. “I would drive around to my friends’ houses, and if they were having dinner, I’d be like, ‘Hey, come hang out! You got some food? Let’s kick it!’ And just eat the chicken and rice. Actually, I was a vegetarian. So I would eat the chicken-juice-soaked rice.” She shrugs. “I was like, ‘I’m too broke to have morals.’ ”
In 2010, the band retired, and her father passed away. She communicates with him now, through a psychic medium she frequently visits in L.A., but at the time, it sank her into a depression. She finally answered her mother’s pleas and joined her in Denver. Ten months later, restless, she moved to Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis, at the behest of a friend who thought she’d like the music scene there. She did. Aaron Mader, a.k.a. Lazerbeak, a local producer and member of rap collective Doomtree, describes the Minneapolis scene as a collaborative utopia. One night Lizzo could open for a punk band; the next, she could collaborate with an electronic band. She lent backup vocals for a rock-soul group and performed at the legendary First Ave, the venue made famous by Prince. To prepare, she watched Purple Rain, took a rowboat into the middle of Lake Minnetonka, and purified herself, just like Prince did in the movie.
For all the diversity of genres, though, the scene was still dominated by white dudes. Younger acts — especially women and women of color — found it difficult to break through, but it also meant that people noticed Lizzo a lot faster. “When someone is a force and has an energy about her that is pretty magnetic, it didn’t take her long for people to pay attention,” says Mader.
Lizzo formed two bands. First, the Chalice, which made melodic pop with a little bit of rap like the Spice Girls. Later, she and the Chalice’s Sophia Eris started GRRRL PRTY and went full N.W.A, explains Lizzo. “We were crazy,” recalls Eris. “It was like a riot onstage. Women just like drinking, cussing, and rapping and singing.” GRRRL PRTY became a local darling. Even Prince took notice, asking them to record a song, “Boytrouble,” and inviting them to play a show at Paisley Park. They couldn’t curse or drink onstage, but they did get to play in front of a projection of Finding Nemo.
On the side, Lizzo was also working on solo material. She felt a lot of anger and sometimes a crisis of confidence. She needed an outlet. “There’s one line on my first album where I say, ‘I got a lot on my chest, so here’s my breast reduction.’ ” She’s referring to a line from “Hot Dish,” off Lizzobangers, which she worked on with Lazerbeak. They met when she tweeted, “I wish I could afford a Lazerbeak beat,” and he responded, “Just give me a case Mike’s Hard Lemonade.” After Lizzobangers, she entered what she calls her artsy-fartsy phase, which, like any good indie musicians in 2015, included bangs, a visit to Bon Iver’s Wisconsin studio, April Base, and a Pitchfork mention. The album that resulted, Big GRRRL Small World, persuaded Atlantic to sign her, and she moved to L.A., taking as much of her Minneapolis crew as she could. Next thing she knew, she was opening for acts like Sleater-Kinney, Florence + the Machine, and Haim.
An hour before showtime, with Sasha Flute safely in the care of a stagehand, her nerves begin to quiet. She turns to me and apologizes for her earlier mood. “I don’t always feel like a bad bitch,” she says, just as a bottle of Casamigos tequila, her favorite fake-a-bad-bitch-till-you-are-a-bad-bitch liquor, is delivered. Someone pours Lizzo a drink (a heavy pour plus “a bee’s dick” more worth of tequila and lemonade), and suddenly the clutch is released on the energy in the room. Marko Monroe, the crew’s “skinny white boy” and Lizzo’s stylist, helps her into her outfit — a pink blazer over black bike shorts and white platform sneakers. (“Business on top, ho on bottom,” Lizzo calls the look.) He hands her a chain. “No more chokers that make your neck green. It’s all about Chaneeeel now,” he drawls in a friendly baritone.
No More Green Necks is a status afforded to those at a certain level of success, one Lizzo is finally hitting. “Juice” charted on Billboard’s Hot R&B. She just announced her debut Coachella performance. Will Ferrell dressed up as Ron Burgundy, previously the most notable flautist in pop culture, and responded to her #FluteandShoot challenge on Twitter. (“That was surreal!”)
She steps back and adjusts her blazer. Her makeup artist dusts finishing powder on her creamy brown complexion; everyone stands back and admires for a second. “It’s a Lewk! A Lewk Skywalker!” she says, shaking her Diana Ross waves. Lizzo’s friend and hair stylist, Shelby “The Beyoncé of BabyHair” Swain, walks over and begins to pour herself a drink and tops off Lizzo’s. “Shelby has the best twerking videos,” Lizzo says by way of introduction.
Monroe and Swain are part of Lizzo’s creative team, but she counts them as family. They’re mainstays on the road with her — getting wild in Vegas hotel rooms, sleeping head-to-shoulder on flights, and documenting every moment, from every best angle, on Instagram. “I don’t just hire people because they can do the job. There’s a connection that happens,” says Lizzo.
Lizzo takes another sip and emits a sigh, like she’s sliding into a hot tub. “My brain just relaxed in the most amazing way. I just felt the tequila encircle my brain and hug it a little bit. They say it’s the brain dehydrating,” she jokes. She and Swain feel loose enough to make one of their freestyle videos for Instagram. Swain starts pounding out a beat, and Lizzo starts spitting: “Bitch I feel amazing. Tequila blazing. Bitch I’m in a blazer … Ilana Glazer.” She pauses, rooting around in her brain for the next lyric. “Ain’t here,” she says, dissolving into a laugh that sounds like a Jamaican vacation.
By the time Lizzo landed her record deal with Atlantic, every slogan of every positivity movement had been slapped on her. She’s the “fat-a-bulous” “body-positive rapper who will change the world” by making “chunky funky.” Some of the labels are true but boring, some border on offensive, but none of them comes close to capturing how delightful Lizzo is as a human. Rolling her into the same genus as Dove Real Beauty ads and #fyourbeautystandards hashtags feels like another box.
“I’m embracing the title,” she says of her body-positive crown, and has been featured in campaigns for Good American and Lane Bryant. “But,” she continues, “it’s not a label I wanted to put on myself. It’s just my existence. All these fucking hashtags to convince people that the way you look is fine. Isn’t that fucking crazy? I say I love myself, and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s so brave. She’s so political.’ For what? All I said is ‘I love myself, bitch!’ ” she says, like it’s easy. “Even when body positivity is over, it’s not like I’m going to be a thin white woman. I’m going to be black and fat. That’s just hopping on a trend and expecting people to blindly love themselves. That’s fake love. I’m trying to figure out how to actually live it.”
Lizzo has always been open about the amount of work she does to maintain her stubbornly upbeat attitude. She goes to therapy. She’s improved her relationship with her mother. She’s canceled shows when she realized she wasn’t taking care of herself. She quotes her own lyrics to herself for motivation. Onstage that night at Kings Theatre, Williams and Robinson will ask her to give advice about self-care. She proudly owns, to the enthusiastic delight of the audience, being thick, being single, being black, being a woman, loving anime. “I started really doing work on like deep crevices of myself,” she explains. “I was like, Girl, do you love your back fat? Yeah, you do. Girl, you have a good ass, don’t think you have a bad ass!”
Lizzo’s happy place is anywhere she is — and the energy extends to BK9, a Caribbean restaurant in Brooklyn. It’s late, post-taping, and the place is Monday-night empty when we walk in, but Lizzo immediately starts to identify what’s good about the place: All black people in the kitchen? Food will be lit. Bar is still serving tequila? Perfect. As the hostess leads us to a table, she grabs Swain’s arm and points to a darker-skinned Morris Chestnut look-alike at the bar. “I love these Jamaican-ass men.” She quickly corrects herself: “Or not Jamaican, Bajan.” Everyone ogles freely.
“We love a strong nose in this family,” Lizzo says to Swain.
“I love a strong man,” Swain responds. Not quietly.
“Oh, I know you do. I love a big dirty-hair man, like a mechanic with oil all over his hands.” Whatever fantasy she’s about to spin gets interrupted by the waitress, Cass, whom Lizzo in turn interrupts to ask where she’s from (Trinidad, to Lizzo’s delight. “I love Trini girls!”) and what we should order — oxtails, jerk wings, plantains and garlic sauce, and a medley of fruity margaritas.
Soon everyone has been rendered silent by the jerk sauce. It’s just the sounds of sucking wings, smacking lips. “Oh my God,” Lizzo moans. “Bitch, this don’t even need sauce,” she says to the plantains, “but I’m trying it just because this sauce is so good. Oh my God. Damn, sis, fuuuck. I’m losing my mind. Plantain is my favorite food in the fucking world.” Cass comes back over with extra plantains nobody asked for but everyone is happy to see. “How is everything?” she asks.
“Oh my God, this sauce. Who made this food? I want to suck the dick of whoever made this sauce.”
Cass pauses for a moment. “My dad,” she says, so straight-faced everyone laughs, thinking she’s just quick on the uptake. “No, for serious.” The table goes quiet. Swain’s fist goes to her mouth like a gag ball. Lizzo’s eyes pop until her lash extensions touch her hairline.
“I’m canceled. I’m canceled. I’m definitely canceled,” she yelps, and everyone at the table falls all over each other cackling. Another round of margaritas appears without request — another ramekin of that sauce, too — and bites of oxtail are exchanged for chicken wings for shrimp.
Cass comes over with our bill, and making a surprise cameo is her dad — the dad — via FaceTime. Everyone passes the phone around and says, “Thanks for the food,” but Dad only has eyes for Lizzo. “Give me back to the thick one,” he says. “She cute.”
Lizzo’s expression changes from a grin to something like a wince. “Oh, am I the thick one? Did you hear that? I’m just ‘the thick one’?” she says quietly to Swain. The moment passes, almost imperceptible.
That moment — the wince — comes up when we meet again a few weeks later at Atlantic Records. It’s after-hours and we’ve all assembled in one of the office’s many artist lounges to listen to tracks from the new album. Lizzo lies down on a teal suede couch. She’s wearing a pink suit the color of the Energizer Bunny’s fur.
“Did I wince?” she asks. “I assume I was just responding to some way I must have felt in the past. Like subconsciously. Sure, I’m the thick one. I’m a lot of things. It doesn’t really bother me,” she waves me off, because today it really doesn’t. She kicks up her silver Givenchy sneakers on the coffee table and changes the subject. “I was just sitting on the toilet, peeing, thinking about Beyoncé saying my name, and I swear I got wet!” she says. “It’s gonna happen. I can hear her say it.” She switches to a Beyoncé-as-God voice, “Lizzoooh.”
If imagining Beyoncé saying her name is any indication of her faith in Cuz I Love You, Lizzo is pretty sure she’s got a collection of bullets. “Missiles,” she says, explaining the sound as “if Aretha Franklin made a ratchet-ass rap album in 2019.” “So I’m going to become iconic musically,” she declares. “I don’t mean in the way all the kids are using it now for everything like, ‘Oh, I took a nap. How iconic.’ Even though it’s valid; naps are iconic. I mean iconic like an icon. Like when you see the go sign or the stop sign, you know what it means.”
Her publicist plugs her phone into the room’s sound system. The title track she plays, “Cuz I Love You,” is dedicated to an ex she won’t name, who used to ask her to “please stop crying” whenever she did it in front of him. “He’s a Gemini,” she says with daggers in her eyes; then, in the booming voice of a preacher at a pulpit, she announces, “This is for every woman-ah, who has ever-ah, been victimized by a Gemini.” She pauses to consider if she’s committing astrology prejudice. “Should I slander Gemini?” she asks the room. “You know what? Yes. Give us a reason to like you, Gemini.”
Next she cues up “Like a Girl,” and as she explains the meaning behind it, her voice takes on the tone of an executive making an ad presentation. “The phrase ‘like a girl’ has such a negative connotation,” she says. “I wanted to reclaim that phrase, like, ‘Bitch, you wish you could throw like a girl!’ ”
I have to stop her. This is the first time Lizzo’s message has sounded like the slogans designed to make people cry during Super Bowl commercials. And in fact, “Like a Girl” was a slogan from a 2014 Always campaign that was then considered “groundbreaking” but now just sounds like a maxi-pad commercial.
“I think deeply about how to take a message and how to push it forward.” She cites her 2017 song “Truth Hurts.” “I sing, ‘I will never ever, ever be your sidechick,’ but originally the lyric was a sidechick.” She waits for me to get the subtle difference. “Bitch, what about sidechicks! I don’t want to exclude them! I don’t want to make them feel bad.
“I think that’s why this feels brand-new. I’m trying to be inclusive. Could this song be in a Dove commercial? Yes, but it won’t. They aren’t thinking about everybody.” To her credit, Lizzo’s “Like a Girl” is about throwing dollars at strippers “like a girl.” It probably won’t be used in a commercial for feminine products. “The old heads aren’t ready for that,” she jokes.
Though Lizzo tries to be careful, recently she got caught in a wave of backlash from the same body-positivity community that’s already given her icon status. In October, Oprah’s team asked if they could use the bouncy, inspirational “Worship” in a Weight Watchers commercial. Weight Watchers has undergone a makeover recently — under Oprah, it is a less diet-shaming endeavor, but still, a diet. Lizzo was ecstatic. Holy shit! It was Oprah. She tweeted the campaign, Instagram Storied it, expecting the same amount of excitement she felt. Her fans were immediately disappointed. They DM’d her about “her brand” and how she’d betrayed it, and them.
Lizzo archived the post but put up a new message: “Let me explain to you what I was going through and if you have any care — ’cause I’m a human being. I’m not just like some totem on the internet.” She admits now that the situation threw her into an internal conflict. It was a rare chance to push herself into national consciousness, and it’s Oprah — shouldn’t she be allowed the opportunity? And yet she genuinely wants to uplift communities, specifically this one. “I didn’t know it was gonna be that deep,” she says. “I’m not gonna lie to you.”
She finally gets to the last track she wants to play — her real show-off song, “Tempo,” featuring Missy Elliott. The beat drops in like a booty metronome, and suddenly Swain and Monroe, who were sleeping so hard they both have creases on their faces, are immediately reanimated. Monroe starts body-rolling in his chair, mouth open. Swain pops up and places her hand squarely on the floor like a quarterback and starts bobbing her butt up and down. Lizzo leans back, arms open, grinding her seat. “Man. Bitch, I need to hear this. I listen to my mixes every day, and I just get like, Fuck! Yes! I am excited about life!”
*This article appears in the February 4, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
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