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How Lizzo Conquered Her Fears and Found Her Best Self

“The girl that you see onstage is now also coming alive in the songs,” says the singer, whose major-label debut, ‘Cuz I Love You,’ is out now

Lizzo in Los Angeles, in March 2019.

Lizzo in Los Angeles in March 2019.

Photograph by Erik Tanner for Rolling Stone. Hair by Shelby Swain. Makeup by Alexx Mayo at TheOnly.Agency. Styling by Marko Monroe

A little over a year ago, Lizzo had an epiphany at the office of her label, Atlantic Records. “I was looking at Aretha Franklin on the walls,” says the singer-rapper-flutist, 31, whose first major-label album, Cuz I Love You, is out now. “I [thought about] I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. That’s what I want this to be — the album that defines my career. People are gonna be like, ‘That shit was just the beginning, and from then on it was forever lit, and she won every award.’ ”

It took time for Lizzo, born Melissa Jefferson, to let herself dream this big. When she began performing, first in her hometown of Houston and then in Minneapolis, she’d enlist collaborators to take the spotlight off herself. “I believed in myself in rock bands, R&B groups and rap duos,” she says. “But I never believed in myself as a solo artist. I didn’t think anyone wanted to look at me or hear what I had to say.”

That’s changed in the past three years, as Lizzo has won fans with a string of supercatchy, genre-swerving pop singles. She can serve up Instagram-caption-worthy self-love (“Good as Hell”) as easily as she does fast-rapping twerk anthems (“Fitness,” “Tempo”). She’s also shown a savvy mastery of meme culture: In October, a fan-made video of her playing flute section of Kendrick Lamar’s “Big Shot” before hitting the popular shoot dance at one of her shows became internet gold. New fans flocked to her social media for more flute-and-shoot content, along with clips of Lizzo twerking in a Sailor Moon costume or saying “Bye, bitch!” while being driven away on a cart. “Social media is a fantasy,” she says. “ I do it the way that I do because it makes me laugh.”

She credits her decision to start going to therapy last summer with having a much bigger impact on her life than social media. “That was really scary,” she says. “But going on that journey of being vulnerable with someone who I didn’t know, and then learning how to be vulnerable with people that I do know, gave me the courage to be vulnerable as a vocalist.” She mentions the new LP’s title track, where she sings like the words are being ripped from the bottom of her lungs: “I was so afraid of sounding like that for so long. It’s a raw part of me that I didn’t allow myself to celebrate.”

Vulnerability was the catalyst needed to record the album in the first place. Every song on Cuz I Love You is inspired by events from the same summer she started going to therapy; Lizzo says she needed to learn how to love herself unconditionally, even when she wasn’t at her best. The resulting product is her most honest work yet. It’s a set of self-esteem-boosting anthems from a person who has learned that high self-esteem is about more than what you present to others.

“These songs are soaked into those actual scenarios, versus me being like ‘This is what you do: You walk your fine ass out the door,’ which is an ideal scenario,” she says, quoting a popular lyric from “Good as Hell.”

“I’m jumping straight into a scenario [now]  on certain songs where I’m literally sitting in a car with someone crying and I’m like, ‘Pull this car over, I need to get this off my chest,'” she continues. “Or when I’m literally sending a text to a fuckboy [saying] ‘Take yo’ ass home. Stop texting me.’ There’s literal specifics here. You’re in the scene of a movie: my movie, my life.”

Lizzo likes to see her life through the lens of a documentary film, imagining how she or someone else might talk about a given moment on camera. That thought process echoes advice she got from her first co-sign, Prince, when they worked together just a few years before his death: Be eternal.

“When I have to make decisions, I always choose honesty and I always stay true to myself, because I know at the end of the day that is what’s going to remain,” she says. “That is what’s going to be the legend: That I was true to myself and that I honored every person by staying truthful to them.”

Lizzo’s myth-making begins on the stage: She’s a powerhouse singer, a fast rapper and an excellent dancer whose charisma makes any performance irresistibly joyful. For years, her concerts helped win fans, and now, for the first time, she feels like she’s releasing a body of work that can live up to her shows.

“Short anecdote,” she says. “For years, people would come up to me and be like, ‘You know, your albums are good, but I always tell my friends they gotta see you live ’cause it’s way better.’ I feel like now is the first time nobody can say that shit to me.”

While she has always felt free and uninhibited on the stage, in the past Lizzo found herself being a perfectionist to a fault in the studio. She credits X Ambassadors’ Sam Harris, who worked with her on the track “Cuz I Love You,” with helping her realize she didn’t need to be scared of what she was recording.

“I was like, ‘I’m afraid of my voice. I’m afraid of people thinking that I’m one thing,'” she says, recalling her concern that she would be pigeonholed as a soul singer for belting the way she did. “I had to just lose that fear, because the more people get to know me, the more they’ll realize I have many, many, many levels to me.”

This spring, Lizzo is back on the road for her biggest tour yet. “Buy a ticket, bitch,” she only half-jokingly advises. “Last summer was transformative for me,” she adds. “The girl that you see onstage is now also coming alive in the songs.”

 

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