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Charismatic Grammy-winning singer/rapper Lizzo combines her roots in Houston rap, gospel soul, and classical flute as confidently as she addresses race, sexuality, and body positivity. Her 2013 debut, Lizzobangers, reflected her years in Minneapolis’ hip-hop and indie music scenes (Doomtree’s Lazerbeak was one of its producers), and as time went on, her style became more wide-ranging and melodic. On 2015′s self-released Big Grrrl Small World, she added more R&B and gospel to her sound, a trend that continued on her brash major-label debut album, 2019′s platinum-selling, Grammy-winning Cuz I Love You, home to hits like “Good as Hell,” “Truth Hurts,” and “Juice.” With 2022′s Special, she doubled down on her instantly catchy feel-good anthems.
Born Melissa Jefferson, Lizzo lived in Detroit until she was ten, when she and her family moved to Houston. While growing up, she listened to gospel at home, took flute lessons with the respected music teacher Claudia Momen, and played in her school’s marching band. She also began rapping, forming the group Cornrow Clique with her friends when she was 14. Around this time, she picked up the nickname Lizzo, a cross between “Lissa” and Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V. A.).”
When high school was over, she studied classical flute performance at the University of Houston, but the loss of her father when she was 21 devastated her. Looking for a fresh start, Lizzo moved to Minneapolis in 2011 and soon became a part of the city’s thriving music scene. She performed with groups including the duo Lizzo & the Larva Ink and the Chalice, an all-female rap/R&B trio whose debut album, We Are the Chalice, appeared in 2012. During this time, she also worked on her own music and collaborated with Gayngs’ Ryan Olson and Doomtree’s Lazerbeak on her September 2013 debut album, Lizzobangers. The album’s gritty sound earned Lizzo local and national acclaim, and she toured the U.S. and U.K. with Har Mar Superstar after its release.
The following year, Lizzo worked with Prince on his album Plectrumelectrum and made guest appearances on tracks by Clean Bandit (“New Eyes”), Bastille (“Torn Apart”), and Sean Anonymous and DJ Name (“Cold Shoulder”). To make her second album, Lizzo recorded at the studio of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, working once again with Lazerbeak as well as producers Sam Spiegel and Stefon "Bionik" Taylor. The results were December 2015′s Big Grrrl Small World, a set of songs that borrowed from classic and contemporary hip-hop and R&B. Arriving on Lizzo’s own BGSW label, the album’s widespread praise led to a deal with Atlantic Records and a slot opening for Sleater-Kinney on their reunion tour.
For her first major-label release, Lizzo worked with producers Christian Rich, Dubbel Dutch, Jesse Shatkin and Ricky Reed, who encouraged her to use more of her gospel vocal training on the songs they were writing together. The Coconut Oil EP, which featured the singles “Worship” and “Good as Hell,” appeared in October 2016 on Reed’s Nice Life imprint, Emphasizing the themes of body positivity and self-love that appeared in her later releases, the EP reached number 22 on Billboard’s Top R&B Albums chart. Following a stint hosting the MTV program Wonderland, Lizzo issued the 2017 singles “Water Me” and “Truth Hurts.” The following year, she released the single “Boys,” toured with Haim and Florence + the Machine, and appeared in the first plus-size outfit made for FIT’s Future of Fashion runway show.
Lizzo returned in April 2019 with her third full-length, Cuz I Love You, which featured production by Reed, X Ambassadors, and Warren "Oak" Felder and further emphasized the different dimensions of her music. The single “Juice” reached number 23 on the Billboard Hot R&B Songs chart, while “Tempo,” a collaboration with Missy Elliott, hit number 21 on the U.S. Digital Song Sales chart. Three months after its arrival, Cuz I Love You peaked at number four on the Billboard 200 Albums chart. The album’s success rubbed off on some of Lizzo’s previous releases: In August 2019, Coconut Oil appeared on the Billboard 200, while “Truth Hurts” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100, tying for the longest-running number one by a solo female rap artist. Additionally, “Good as Hell” peaked at number three on the Hot 100, and reached the Top Ten of the U.K. Singles Chart. That September saw the release of Cuz I Love You (Deluxe), which included Lizzo’s 2017 and 2018 singles. On top of all of her musical achievements, in 2019 she also appeared in the movie Hustlers and lent her voice to the animated film UglyDolls.
In January 2020, Cuz I Love You was certified platinum in the U.S. (the album also went platinum in Brazil, double platinum in Canada, and gold in several other countries including the U.K.). That month, a super deluxe version of the album that included “Good as Hell” appeared. Lizzo received eight Grammy nominations at the 62nd Grammy Awards, including Record and Song of the Year, as well as Best Pop Solo Performance for “Truth Hurts”; Album of the Year and Best Urban Contemporary Album for Cuz I Love You (Deluxe); Best R&B Performance for “Exactly How I Feel”; Best Traditional R&B Performance for “Jerome”; and Best New Artist, making her that year’s most-nominated artist. She took home the awards for Urban Contemporary, Pop Solo, and Traditional R&B. Her other accolades included the Billboard Music Award for Top Song Sales Artist, the Soul Train Music Award for Album/Mixtape of the Year, and a BET Award for Best Female R&B/Pop Artist (she became the first artist nominated in the R&B/Pop and Hip-Hop categories in the same year).
In August 2021, Lizzo collaborated with Cardi B on the single “Rumors,” which topped the Billboard R&B chart and reached number four on the Hot 100. Two more singles, “About Damn Time” and “Grrrls,” preceded her fourth album, July 2022′s Special. Working with a creative team that included Reed, Blake Slatkin, Benny Blanco, and Max Martin, the record found Lizzo exploring love in all its aspects. “About Damn Time” won the award for Record of the Year at the 65th Annual Grammy Awards in 2023. Purple Disco Machine’s remix of the song was also named Best Remixed Recording, Non-Classical. ~ Heather Phares