A Different Tempo: Yes, Lizzo is a Rapper. She’s Always Been.
Some simply won’t consider Lizzo as a rapper because she‘s a body positive Black woman with a diverse sound and fan base. Her discography and a scholar reveal: it’s disingenuous.
Lizzo has been making bomb music for a long time, but her mainstream moment is just now coming. Her first alum under a major label, Cuz I Love You, was #1 on the Rolling Stone 200 and is climbing the Billboard charts as well, currently at #4. It earned the musician and flautist well-earned critical acclaim and popularity this summer, and now deluxe editions include the Top 5 ‘sleeper hit’ “Truth Hurts”, which Lizzo released first in 2017.
Something else that has taken popularity this summer is the emergence of Hot Girl Summer, led by Megan Thee Stallion, which is a trend that has put a highlight on the many women rappers are prominent now, and also recognize the trailblazers that made it possible for them. Lizzo and Megan recently met up in Houston (where they both grew up) and had some fun for Instagram in the midst of what appears to be a collaboration. Around that time, the hip hop community reacted to comments by Jermaine Dupri that suggested that female rappers were really ‘stripper rappers’ because of how much they talk about sex.
The general disrespect received by women rappers and hip hop artists, in addition to the general public that won’t recognize Lizzo as a successful rapper among the likes of others, led to her tweeting out “Sometimes I get pissed that there are people who call future & swae lee rappers and still question whether or not I belong in the rap conversation…But then I remember I have the #4 song in the country, laugh, go back to my dream job and log off.” Of course, the majority of the focus was placed on her name dropping of Future and Swae Lee of Rae Srummerd, instead of the actual issue that Lizzo was attempting to address. Lizzo clarified that she was “just saying we all share a similar rap sing style” in reference to the two artists she previously named. Of course, the clarification only did so much to clear up the issues that Future and Swae Lee fans took with the statement, even though there wasn’t any negativity or antagonism described toward them. Later, Swae Lee explained that it’s all good with Lizzo, and that he wasn’t bothered by the tweets — “I think she can spit. Yeah, for real. Just give credit where it’s due.”
I honestly think the ambiguity comes from the fact [that] she’s too talented, even…she raps, she’s a personality, a singer, a flutist, so nobody really knows what to label her…but she very clearly raps, so she’s a rapper. — Janani, aka @Bliplox
This moment in conjunction with Lizzo’s reaction to a mixed review of Cuz I Love You in April reflects that she is sensitive about her public perception. As you may expect, Twitter isn’t the most receptive place for those reactions, but I wanted to explore the issue at hand with Lizzo’s recent tweets — why is she not allowed in the rap conversation?
I spoke to Lizzo’s top scholar on Genius.com, Janani (username @Bliplox), to gain more insight on the artist’s image issue. “I love Lizzo, but definitely wouldn’t consider myself an expert on her,” she prefaces our conversation. She explains “I just enjoy writing about her lyrics because she’s incredibly clever with her wordplay…and just a super versatile artist all around,” citing her “David, you ain’t being slick/don’t dare try to cop a feel/Copperfield” line on “Juice” as evidence that Lizzo’s “a whole genius”. Now holding 1,300 IQ points on her music, Janani describes falling “down the rabbithole” of her discography “after I saw a GIF of her on twitter from the music video for “Scuse Me”…she just has this really strong, commanding presence, and it’s palpable even when you’re just watching a silent loop of her.”
When I asked Janani if she considers Lizzo a rapper, she answered: “she’s a rapper insofar as she’s a person who, well, raps. …[S]he has a very particular rhythm and cadence to a lot of her verses, which I think is pretty clearly highlighted in songs like “Tempo” and “Boys”. I honestly think the ambiguity comes from the fact [that] she’s too talented, even…she raps, she’s a personality, a singer, a flutist, so nobody really knows what to label her — a lot of articles written about her just describe her as a ‘talent’,” citing this NPR article as evidence, “but she very clearly raps, so she’s a rapper. Just because a lot of her mainstream music is more pop-adjacent, it doesn’t discount that.”
Sterogum comments under the news of her “Truth Hurts” remixes just yesterday opened my eyes to this consensus amongst hip hop fans. The first comment reads, “I really wanted to like Lizzo. I thought Juice was good. But then the white women came…and they ruined Lizzo with a breathtaking speed & force.” The same commenter continues, “I also hate this song and any rap song that’s main hook is just lifting the hook from a famous song,” incorrectly referencing a Sister Nancy song, “Bam Bam”, which a) Is not sampled in any Lizzo song, and b) itself samples another song for its hook. Another comment claims that “Truth Hurts” ripped from 2016’s “Black Beatles” by Rae Srummerd due to its similarities; “Black Beatles” itself interpolates and sounds similar to “Hey Ya!” by OutKast. Another comment goes: “I just feel like she’s a knockoff of [C]upcakke aesthetic and [Y]oung [T]hug vocals but targeted at the [M]eghan [T]rainor demographic.” Lizzo has been professionally releasing music since 2011, and her debut project Lizzobangers dropped in 2013, long before Cupcakke’s first debut mixtape in 2016 — not that there’s anything wrong with either of them if they do sound or aesthetically perform the same.
While these may seem as out of touch, isolated feelings in the comments section of a music site, they describe the negative perception that black women musicians face in every genre. Some of these issues are rooted in misogyny and anti-fatness, of course, and some are just based in negative connotations of the white gaze that comes with mainstream success like Lizzo has found. In part, Lizzo isn’t being a rapper because she’s not tying herself solely to her lyrical abilities. “I also think there’s this tendency for fans of hip-hop to only be able to accommodate one major female rapper at a time, right now being Megan Thee Stallion,” Janani explains, “And the fact that Lizzo is this new(ish), eclectic, genre-breaking force in the mix kind of messes with that.
Both Lizzobangers and Big Grrrl Small World, her second album, are composed mostly of rap — but they do include rock, pop, and R&B elements. Lizzo has always mixed sounds and made instrument-heavy, dance-favoring music, which correlates to pop more than hip hop, even in the present day where hip hop has increased popularity. The Pitchfork review that caused Lizzo’s disparaging remarks about writers in April concluded that Lizzo was “this generation’s Natasha Bedingfield” a la making music “for yogurt commercials” and Cuz I Love You as “one extremely long yaaaaaaas,” “burdened” with “…awkward turns of phrase, and ham-handed rapping,” and even included an out-of-left field comparison to politician Stacy Abrams, saying that both Abrams and Lizzo “perform[s] an important social function.”
While Lizzo’s initial tweet saying non-musician music writers “SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED” was rightly criticized, I can see why she was upset with the generalizations of her work presented in the review. The Natasha Bedingfield comparison (who has a commendable discography of her own) in a supposed negative connotation ignores Lizzo’s musical skills and her versatile discography, leaving an unfair perception that she is a one-dimensional pop act whose music is only for white audiences and yogurt commercials. The Pitchfork review minimizes Cuz I Love You to simply being a political work mainly because it is thematically heavy in body positivity and messages of independence. While this is definitely a pop-first record, Lizzo’s discography and music repertoire is not. That brings me back to points Janani made to me: “I can see how people could have misconstrued it to be an attack against the rappers as opposed to Lizzo’s frustration at public perception in general…it’s probably also the product of the sudden influx of new ears and new opinions, which i think can be overwhelming when you’ve been making music in relative obscurity for a while.” This album has bought her the mainstream success that all music artists dream of, and that has also led to large misrepresentation of her artistry.
I also think there’s this tendency for fans of hip-hop to only be able to accommodate one major female rapper at a time…and the fact that Lizzo is this new(ish), eclectic, genre-breaking force in the mix kind of messes with that. - Janani
Lizzo’s rising popularity with white audiences can be attributed to her tours with Haim and Florence and the Machine, and her live or recorded collaborations with Caroline Smith, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Ricky Reed, and Har Mar Superstar, acts consisting of mostly white musicians and white-heavy audiences. She has also performed and recorded with Prince and worked with Black producers/writers of hits for Black artists like Christian Rich and Jean Baptiste Kouame; one of her first bands was the Cornrow Cliques; she celebrated her blackness as well as her womanhood on several songs, specifically “My Skin” in 2015. Her work has always encompassed recognizing and praising the black girl in herself, and helping others find ways to love themselves. That message happens to be popular right now, and so because she continues to promote it, people have correlated that as Lizzo searching for mainstream attention, or in most hip hop purist’s eyes, the white gaze. Unbeknownst to them is that Lizzo is one of the trailblazers of the trend, not the appropriators or newcomers to it.
Further, those unaware of Lizzo’s alternative hip hop beginnings will easily discount her claims to being a rapper. Several rap artists (yes, especially Future and Swae Lee) mix and conflate genre in their music, and the likes of Drake and Tyler, The Creator have made their careers by flirting with non-traditional hip hop delivery or production. “I feel like her [Future/Swae Lee] comment was less directed toward the two rappers and more toward the fact that ever since she skyrocketed over the last few months, people refuse to acknowledge her as a rap artist and include her in the hip hop conversation– even though she’s been doing this from when she was 14,” Janani tells me, and she sends as evidence: the 2013 video for “Batches & Cookies” where Lizzo delivers an amazing flow of bars with Sophia Eris over a trap-like beat while waving LGBTQ flags and riding motorcycles around Minneapolis. “I can imagine it has to be frustrating when people reduce you to only the pop or R&B genre when you’re as versatile an artist as she is.”
Pitchfork cited her “My voice is the genre” comments as evidence of her “join[ing] the proposition for genreless music”, in support of their claim that Cuz I Love You “sounds like an improvement on any given major-label writing session,” which is a roundabout way of calling the music composition of the LP basic, and discredits Lizzo’s writing skills (she wrote or co-wrote every song on the album). “I think she’s incredibly passionate about what she does in terms of music, and it’s evident when you look at the sheer amount of songs in her discography and how long she’s been doing this for,” Janani explains. She conceding that Lizzo’s music writers’ comment “came off incredibly uninformed,” but also sympathizes with Lizzo’s initial feelings, and defends her as “a very reactionary person, and this is great when it comes to her music because it’s made so innovative, but not so much when it comes down to criticism…I think she’s both growing as an artist and as a person through her experience in the limelight.”
Some are intentionally excluding Lizzo from consideration as a rapper because her music and identity as an artist doesn’t conform to mainstream hip hop music. In tweets featured in HotNewHipHop, detractors are seen saying of the musician “swae lee & future makes rap music, you’re an artist who makes pop music so its (sic) gonna be hard to see you as a rapper if you rarley (sic) rap”; “Swae Lee’s worst verse is better than your best one (…) and I never heard you rap before”, and “[S]wae…wrote HITS. nobody bop to your shit like that,” with the latter tweeter detracting from her Top 5 hit by saying male rappers “[have] had plenty of those” and further claiming her success is only because of her white fanbase.
As you can see from these comments, many ‘traditional’ hip hop fans simply don’t want to consider Lizzo as a rapper because she is a body positive black woman with a diverse fan base and sound. As Jermaine Dupri promoted with his “stripper rappers” comment, several people in the hip hop community claim to only consider people that tell stories in a complex delivery as ‘real’ rappers. Besides the fact that they can do this just as well, if not better than men, many female rappers like Lizzo touch on multiple subjects (homophobia and anti-blackness, in addition to body positivity) that many mainstream male rappers don’t. Trying to gate-keep the title of rapper based solely on an artists’ subject matter or fan demographics is disingenuous. Due to the lack of education regarding the history and development of hip hop, most fans have set gangsta rappers and potent poets (i.e. 2Pac, LL Cool J) as the only standard for hip hop artistry, and this belief has transferred over to music journalism as well.
In reality, Hip Hop has always been multidimensional. All hip hop artists weren’t super-serious spitters and storytellers, both today and in the 1970s/80s. You don’t have to consider her the most hardcore rapper in the game, but the outright exclusion of Lizzo’s artistry from hip hop is based in antagonism to her work and her fan base. This antagonism is commonly found in detractors of other Black Women rappers such as Missy Elliott, Megan Thee Stallion, and Cupcakke, despite clear evidence of their lyrical expertise and carefully-constructed deliveries. Lizzo didn’t make any friends in the journalism or hip hop realms with those past remarks, but has she really gone farther than most other artists in defense of their work? I can think of SEVERAL instances where artists have said worse to detractors. Janani concludes, “Again, she’s definitely going to grow. I think the more she’s placed in the public’s eye, the better she’s going to learn how to maneuver controversy.”
Lizzo has translated her carefree choice of rapping into other sounds, as evidenced by even more recent songs such as “Boys”, “Phone”, and “Good as Hell”. While it’s not seen as ‘seriously’ as other mainstream rap acts, carefree rapping has been prevalent in hip hop since its inception. Teena Marie’s “Square Biz” coda (which supposedly interpolates hip hop’s pioneering song “Rapper’s Delight”) is just as much rap in 1981 as when Missy interpolated it for “One, Two Step” in 2004. Rappers from today’s Logic, Gucci Mane, and Mackelmore to the earlier Salt n Pepa, TLC and Blondie have discographies fill with non-hardcore rhymes or on amusing topics that found both hip hop and mainstream pop success. There’s no reason to exclude Lizzo from the genre. She is — and has been — rapping profusely for a decade. She just happens to do other things well, too.
Plus, if you need proof of her more intense lyricism, Big Grrrl Small World and Lizzobangers are still available mostly everywhere, in addition to the EP Coconut Oil — or, go see her live at the upcoming Cuz I Love You Too Tour.