The rapper-singer, MTV personality, and Prince collaborator is trying to change the world with her uplifting brand of hip-hop soul
How high can Lizzo go? When it comes to the notes she can hit, the 28-year-old rapper and singer only just found out. While in the studio last year with producer Ricky Reed (Meghan Trainor, Jason Derulo), she tried to impress him by breaking out of her vocal comfort zone. “I used to sing, but I didn’t sang,” she says. “He was like, ‘What’s your register?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know!’ He was like, ‘Can you sing in this key?’” The pair quickly wrote two songs that appear on Lizzo’s Coconut Oil EP, out now: “Good as Hell,” a soulful pep talk that was included on April’s Barbershop: The Next Cut soundtrack; and the brassy opener “Worship,” which features the highest note Lizzo has ever sung.
She’s only gone up from there. A few months after they met, Reed signed her to his imprint at Atlantic Records—her first major-label deal. She’s also been taking over TV screens as a host of MTV’s new live-music show Wonderland and this year’s VMAs preshow, where she was a natural at mingling with stars like Desiigner and Tinashe. “Someone from MTV was like, ‘Have you done that before?’” she says. “I was like, ‘I’ve never been to an awards show before, homey!’”
Lizzo was born Melissa Jefferson in Detroit, grew up in Houston (where she got her moniker), and moved to Minneapolis in 2011. There, she rapped with a few hip-hop groups but was equally drawn toward the indie-rock world. For her 2015 album, Big GRRRL Small World, a critical favorite among indie tastemakers, she recorded at Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon’s studio; that same year, she also opened for Sleater-Kinney’s comeback tour. “It taught me how to be a crowd-pleaser,” she says of touring with non-rap acts.
But playing for mostly white audiences also left Lizzo longing to connect with her roots, so one day she told Reed that she wanted to write a tribute to black sisterhood. The resulting track, “Coconut Oil,” features gospel organ—a nod to the music she grew up hearing in church—and a recording from her grandmother’s funeral from last year, where a cousin spoke about the generations of strong women in their family. (The song also has an epic flute solo—Lizzo studied classical flute performance at the University of Houston.) Lizzo says the speech inspired her to dedicate the EP to her family: “It sums up the whole reason why I’m doing this.”
Celebrating who you are has long been Lizzo’s MO. Thanks to Big GRRRL tracks like the bubbly “En Love” and the touching “My Skin,” she’s become the new queen of body-positive self-acceptance anthems. But her quest to spread the love took on an extra urgency after the death of Prince, with whom she worked on his 2014 album Plectrumelectrum. “Toward the end of his life, he was completely focused on positive music and making sure that only good vibes were coming out of Paisley Park,” she says. “I want that to be my mantra.”
There are obstacles to her mission. Celebrating black womanhood in 2016 is, unfortunately, still seen by some as a radical political act—see: the small but vocal backlash to Beyoncé’s “Formation,” which detractors deemed antipolice. “The higher I get [in my career], the less I see people like me,” Lizzo says. “So when I’m there, I’m sticking out like a sore thumb as much as somebody with a Black Lives Matter sign would.” She’s happy to talk about the issues—past songs have touched on police brutality and racial oppression—but she also thinks she can accomplish plenty just by making listeners feel, well, good as hell. “I don’t want it ever to be too contrived to where you can’t enjoy what I’m saying,” she says. “But the fact that people buy tickets to my shows, buy my album, look at me and think that I’m a beautiful person inside and out? It’s the most change that I can do.”
For more Lizzo, catch her this month at EW PopFest, performing alongside Nick Jonas, Janelle Monáe, Tove Lo, Jake Miller, and Cardiknox. EW PopFest runs from Oct. 29-30 at The Reef in Downtown Los Angeles. For more information and to purchase tickets, go to ewpopfest.com.