Interview: Lizzo Talks Big Grrrl Small World, Houston Rap, Prince and Just Being Yourself

On January 19, 2016

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“I woke up in this, I woke up in this, in my skin,” Minneapolis-based rapper sings in the hook on “My Skin,” one of the many standouts on her sophomore LP, Big Grrrl Small World. The song serves as a mission statement of sorts for Lizzo’s movement, which emphasizes owning who and what you are over everything else. It’s a sentiment that somehow comes across as radical, which is something we talked to Lizzo about when we got her on the phone last week.


Big Grrrl Small World is a confident, effervescent, stylistically adventurous album, one that Lizzo cut after a lengthy tour with Sleater-Kinney last year. Lizzo’s first album, Lizzobangers, was more of a straightforward rap album, but on Big Grrrl she sings—she once auditioned for American Idol—raps and even plays the flute (she is trained in classical flute, too). Her music is starting to match the disparate experiences that make Lizzo Lizzo; she was raised a strict Christian in Detroit before she moved to Houston as a pre-teen, and once there she discovered the city’s vibrant rap scene. A connection with a producer led her to Minneapolis, where she’s now a cornerstone of the city’s hip-hop culture.

We talked to Lizzo about the legacy of Third Coast rappers, Prince, and how one specific bra-less woman in Minneapolis inspired her art. You can get Big Grrrl Small World on dope purple vinyl in our members store now.

 

VMP: One of the overarching themes of your music is that you should just be happy and comfortable in your own skin; it doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like. Can you tell me why that message seems like it’s radical?

Lizzo: Isn’t that funny? That’s the same question I’m asking. I’m not trying to be radical when I say “Love yourself,” but somehow it’s so radical. People are like, “How brave is this woman for wearing a bikini and she’s not a size 2!” Like, why is that so brave? Why are y’all so shocked?

I think it’s because the messages we’ve been receiving from culture are so catered to a specific audience. We see the same faces and the same bodies, and we’re taught that women are supposed to be insecure, and men are supposed to be machisimo. We’re used to these things, and they’re ingrained in our society. So when somebody says something that’s just a little different than that narrow perspective, it’s just like people’s minds explode. But you know, shoutout to the people who continue to break norms.

I don’t why it’s so radical.

VMP: You were out on tour with Sleater-Kinney for their reunion tour this year. How did that tour impact this album, if at all?

Lizzo: I wrote “Humanize” while I was on tour with Sleater-Kinney, actually. And there’s tons of stories from the road on the album. “Ride” too. All of these pivotal growing pains happened on the tour. I would sit in the van and write.

VMP: What was the coolest or weirdest thing you got to see opening for them every night?

Lizzo: They were already great the first night, but I saw them grow. Their first show back was our first show of the tour. I felt honored that they chose us to go on that journey with them. I’m on tour with my best friends, and they’re on tour with their best friends, you know? It was nice to see a group of homies do the same.

VMP: You’re a classically trained flautist. Do you ever envision dropping a flute-only album?

Lizzo: HA! That would be sick. If the powers that be would let me. Everyone always tells me the flute isn’t cool, but I thought the flute was the coolest thing in the world all the way up till when I started making rap music. You can hear my flute a little bit on Big Grrrl Small World, and slowly but surely I’m going to try to get her in there. I’m taking her on tour. She’s gonna see the world. She’s still my baby, you know what I mean?

VMP: I think it could be interesting if you could do for flute what that violinist on all the Twista songs did for violin.

Lizzo: Except I’m also Twista in that scenario (laughs).

VMP: As someone who grew up part of your youth in Houston, what’s a good Houston rap song or artist that you’d recommend to someone trying to understand that city’s rap.

Lizzo: Trae the Truth!

VMP: Oh man, totally.

Lizzo: Trae has been working so long and so hard. And also, I would play this song called “June 27.” It’s a really long freestyle.

The coolest thing about Houston rap, is that if you’re from Houston, you can freestyle. Because everyone freestyles; we’d bang on the desks, we’d bang on the bus, and everybody would gather around and freestyle. The difference with Houston freestyles though is that you don’t have to be like, heady, or “lyrical, spherical, empirical” it’s not impressive. It’s more of a vibe.

Back in 5th grade we’d be freestyling and it’d be like “Man, uh, how you feeling?, uh” it’s a….

VMP: A mood.

Lizzo: Yeah, exactly. A mood. That long track, all the rappers of the time, the big dudes in the city all hopped on that one track. So I’d play that. I also used to love Lil Flip.

I always try to play Houston rap for my friends, and they just don’t get it. Even though everyone started chopping and screwing music, I remember when it was a crime when you’d chop and screw and you weren’t from Houston. Besides chopping and screwing, I don’t think people can grasp genuine Houston rap; it’s watery, it’s leaned out. And it doesn’t make sense. It just feels good. I’ll tell my friends, “Y’all should listen to Purple Stuff.” And then they’re like, “Can we listen to A$AP Rocky instead?” (laughs).

It’s crazy to me how much the Third Coast rappers have influenced all of hip-hop now. Especially guys like Bun B, and Pimp C, may he rest in peace. People don’t always know the Houston rappers, since a lot of them have died now, but they all know the Houston style. And style lives forever.

VMP: You moved to Minneapolis without really visiting there. What were your first impressions when you moved up there?

 Lizzo: I never wanted to live somewhere cold again—I grew up part of the time in Detroit—but when I got up to Minneapolis, I realized it was colorful. Not the people, because everyone there is white mostly, but I saw people with pink hair. This was before neon hair was a trend. When I moved there, everyone looks like how they feel on the inside. It was amazing to me.

One of the first days I was there, I saw a woman with really big boobs who was not wearing a bra, and she was just living her life. And I was like, “I love this place!” And she didn’t shave her underarms, and I was like, “You’re amazing!” (Laughs). I just thought the people there are free to be themselves and they wore it on their skin there. That really encouraged me to be who I was and start wearing it on my skin.

VMP: I live in Madison, and I think one of the things I like about living up here in cities like this in the Midwest is that people don’t care as much about being cool, because it’s a smaller community and like, who are you going to impress?

Lizzo: There’s like no big brother there. There’s no industry people. I think people try to be industry standard when they live in industry cities. There’s no industry standard in the Midwest, so nobody is trying to live up to the hype. They’re all just themselves.

VMP: The Minneapolis rap scene has always been strong, but recently there’s been like a boom or something. You, Doomtree, the Stand4rd kids. Do you guys have meetings? Do you run into each other?

Lizzo: Oh god (laughs). By the time I got to Minneapolis, Doomtree was…whooo. Legacy. They were a whole another thing. Their fanbase is unmatched up there, still. And then, I remember meeting Allan Kingdom. He was like 17, and he was putting out mixtapes, so I got to see all these younger kids come out.

So no, there aren’t meetings. But we all know each other. I think we have more genuine collaboration than like, L.A. or other industry cities where they’re like “We can’t collaborate till my people call your people.” But in Minneapolis we’re all trying to collaborate. As soon as they catch wind of some new sound or new group, they’re reaching out on Twitter to meet up and collaborate.

VMP: Speaking of Minneapolis artists, you recorded on a Prince album. Are you able to talk about that at all? Or are you sworn to secrecy? How much interaction did you have with him?

Lizzo: Prince is a funny story. Before “Boytrouble” came out, I couldn’t really say much because I didn’t know what his plans were. He owns the music. So now that’s out, sure, I can talk about it.

He liked me and Sophia Eris’ vibe. He summoned us to Paisley Park. He told us we could do whatever we wanted. He respects beautiful, brown, talented female musicians, and I really liked that, because that’s really important right now. The brown or black woman’s perspective is so imitated right now, and never appreciated. It was really nice for a legend to show that from the jump. There was a possibility that what we were doing in the studio wouldn’t be successful, but he still chose to fuck with us. Which was really inspiring. If there were any doubts in my head, that got rid of them.

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Andrew Winistorfer

Andrew Winistorfer is Director of Music at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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