Lizzo sounds terrible. Not on her new album, Cuz I Love You, on which the one-time rapper takes up singing with all the lung-busting power of a classic soul star. On the phone, it’s all coughs and croaks and significantly less of the boundless energy that has made the Detroit 31-year-old a beacon of positivity in 2019 and pop’s hottest breakout star.
When her people try to connect me with her in Seattle, where she’s in the middle of a US tour, at first they can’t get hold of her. Then they ask me to reschedule, saying she’s decided to cancel her entire day of interviews. But five minutes later she’s changed her mind and is on the line, barely audible and giving every impression of being at death’s door.
“I’m not getting all of the sleep,” she admits. “There’s the album, all these amazing radio opportunities, it was my birthday the day before yesterday, and I went straight from [Californian music festival] Coachella into the tour. I remember thinking last year, ‘Oh my God, it doesn’t get any crazier than this!’ That is not true. There’s no point measuring the amount of free time I have because it doesn’t exist.”
Her year began with the release of Juice, a delicious concoction of disco funk and buoyant lyrics about how tremendous she is. It’s a cousin of Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s megahit Uptown Funk both musically and lyrically, with her “Mirror mirror, on the wall, don’t say it ‘cause I know I’m cute,” matching their “Gotta kiss myself, I’m so pretty.” Somehow it has thusfar only spent one week at number 38 in the UK charts, but its fabulous video, in which she parodies workout instructors, hairstyling adverts and home shopping channels, has been watched over 12 million times. It was a major factor in the album, her third, reaching the US top 10 – her first hit.
“I think this is the album I’m supposed to get all the attention for, because I’m ready,” she tells me. My job as an artist isn’t merely to sing. My role is to deliver something that helps people. With my message on this album I can finally do that in the best way.”
More has been made of what the woman born Melissa Jefferson is singing because she does not look like your usual pop star. To hear a larger woman of colour proclaiming self-worth and body positivity hits more powerfully than when, say, Swedish Barbie Zara Larsson does it. “It’s self love in a world that doesn’t love me,” she says. “People can think I’m a superhero, but it’s just bravery. It takes a lot of guts to boldly love yourself in this world that screams in your face that you ain’t shit.”
On the sugary strut of Like a Girl, she announces that she “Woke up feelin’ like I just might run for President.” On Tempo, a rap duet with Missy Elliott, she declares: “Thick thighs save lives.” On the album cover she’s naked, but it’s not quite the proud, in your face pose that people might expect (unlike much of her eye-opening Instagram feed @lizzobeeating). She looks understated, subdued against a plain black backdrop. “I just fell into that position to get comfortable, really relaxed, and that’s the album cover.”
It’s the first clue that, if you dig deeper into her lyrics, the ability to love yourself doesn’t mean pink feather cloaks and adoring crowds (though It does sometimes – check out her outrageous getup for the Met Gala a fortnight ago, where she performed at the afterparty and sang Happy Birthday to Donatella Versace).
“I know I sound extra positive and like I’ve got it all together, but there are songs where I’m sitting in the car crying because somebody doesn’t love me. There are songs where I’m talking about how I’m so frustrated with love. I’m singing about how lonely I am. There’s a song called Lingerie which is really sexy and empowering but I’m by myself, fantasising about a person that never shows up. How can I love myself so much and no one else love me?”
Another crack showed in the upbeat veneer last month, when the reviews of Cuz I Love You started coming in and she took issue with her 6.5 out of 10 on the Pitchfork website. The long assessment argued articulately that the ideas that Lizzo represents are better than the actual music, and more specifically that she’s a “ham-handed” rapper. “PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DON’T MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED,” she shouted on Twitter. She deleted it later, saying, “Gonna take my temper off the internet,” when she found that rather a lot of people disagreed with her.
So I’m a little nervous to admit to her that I’m also a music writer who doesn’t write music, but she says, graciously, “Thank you for your perspective,” when I explain that I’m trying to talk to the 90 per cent of music lovers who don’t play a musical instrument, not the musicians themselves. An article being about her doesn’t mean that it was written for her to read. I try to persuade her to take comfort in the fact that she is culturally significant enough to earn that much space to be discussed, positively or negatively.
She still sounds furious about the review though. “I read it because it was by a blog that is famously hard and rude. I read it to see what they could possibly say, and of course they found that negative spin, found their reason to be a curmudgeon on it. I was really annoyed by that person. Who are you? Are you happy? Have you ever loved something? Or are you just here to bring people down? I am disappointed in myself that I allowed one person to ruin all of the positives and glowing love that I’ve received everywhere else.”
Perhaps she’s so resistant to this jostling of her pedestal because it took her so long to climb it. “I’m not an overnight success. I’m not a Cinderella story,” she says. A classical flautist from the age of 12, she was always too charismatic to be hidden in an orchestra pit and started bands including The Chalice, Grrrl Party and Absynthe. While living in Minneapolis, she was invited to contribute to one of the last Prince albums, 2014’s Plectrumelectrum. Two solo albums, Lizzobangers in 2013 and Big Grrrl Small World in 2015, made her of cult interest as a rapper but commercial success eluded her.
It was on her rapidfire funk song Worship, on a 2016 EP called Coconut Oil, that she first attempted to see how big her singing voice could get. “I was afraid of that voice, because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a soul singer,” she says. “But on this album, I had to lose that fear. I was like, ‘You go for it!’”
She found a neat way to convince herself that she could sideline her rap voice: “I went into the studio and thought, ‘What if Aretha Franklin dropped a rap album? What would that sound like?’ That’s when this genre – church with a twerk – was created.”
Now she’s got a sound and a message that are timely for today, but she knows there’s more to do. “Body positivity and self love are trendy right now, and that’s exciting. I’ve been talking about it for a long time, since it was something radical, especially for a fat black woman to say. Now I’m taking that messaging a step further by saying that it’s something you have to work on every day, even when you’re at your low points. It’s not just a cute commercialised idea for a spa day.”
Amen to that. Lizzo’s twerking church service has begun.
Cuz I Love You is out now on Nice Life/Atlantic. Lizzo plays May 27, O2 Forum Kentish Town, NW5. o2forumkentishtown.co.uk