L to the I to the Z Z O

Lizzo’s rhymes and stage presence put her on the fast track to stardom.

Rapper Lizzo's 2013 release

Photo by Cameron Wittig

Rapper Lizzo’s 2013 release “Lizzobangers” was just that — a bangin’ example of Lizzo’s swagger.

Grant Tillery

In her recently purchased north Minneapolis cottage last Friday, rap maven Lizzo frantically checked her iPhone for messages she missed while working out at the gym.

Between electronic replies, she recounted the time when she almost scored Adam (Adam Driver) or Ray (Alex Karpovsky) from HBO’s “Girls” to star in the music video for her song “Paris.”

While Adam is Lizzo’s favorite character on “Girls,” Ray leaves a poor aftertaste.

“He’s a jerk,” Lizzo said. “He’s super mean — he’s super cynical.”

Even though the collaboration never came to fruition, Lizzo isn’t frustrated. After all, “Girls” boosted her to indie-rap acclaim when the show added “Paris” to its soundtrack.

The Houston-bred Lizzo, aka Melissa Jefferson, had already made a name with local rap groups the Chalice and, more recently, GRRRL PRTY, but her debut solo album, 2013’s “Lizzobangers,” put her on the map.

Songs like “Batches & Cookies,” “Faded” and “Hot Dish” combine an in-your-face delivery that channels Missy Elliot with innovative jargon that transcends the usual sex-drugs-money paradigm that permeates rap music. She’s equally adept at writing lyrics and freestyling, often combing both techniques.

Recently added as the opener for Rock the Garden this Saturday, Lizzo’s ’90s-flavored rap is the perfect fit for a lineup that spans from Best Coast’s surf pop to Matt and Kim’s alternative dance favorites.

Lizzo, who long doubted her soloist chops, said she’s shocked that her career has reached this point.

“[Rock the Garden] was something I thought that maybe I wouldn’t be able to play at all,” Lizzo said. “I have these goals I want to break as an artist, as a rapper, as a woman, as a black woman. I have all these different categories that I see myself as, so I create all these bars I need to jump over.”

Music came naturally to Lizzo. As a child, gospel music captivated her, and she discovered rap as a teenager. Playing the flute in her high school marching band was her first love, serving as the perfect vehicle to combine hip-hop and instrumentalism.

“The big one was Fat [Joe’s] ‘Lean Back,’” Lizzo said. “I wrote it out and taught it to the band director, the drum majors and the band, and whenever we played it at games, people would go crazy.”

Showmanship didn’t come as naturally, but Lizzo quickly picked up hip-hop dance moves that eventually became the backbone of her performances.

“My dad could not dance — he had two left feet,” Lizzo said. “My mom can church dance, but I had to learn all the twerking and the whining — way before this twerking phenomenon — back in eighth grade from my friends who were from Trinidad and [Jamaica].”

Lizzo’s flute proficiency led her to the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music, where she graduated with a classical flute degree. But her predilection toward raging clashed with the daunting demands of the program.

“I felt so torn between these two worlds; I wanted to go to frat parties and dance with my friends all night, but I also wanted to be at practice at 7 in the morning,” Lizzo said. “It’s really hard to do both of those things, and the pressure overwhelmed me.”

But “everything happened exactly how it was supposed to,” Lizzo said, as her connections at Moores led her to move to Minnesota on a whim with a former bandmate.

With music school’s formalities set aside, Lizzo focused on rap once again and connected with Ryan Olson, the man behind the record label Totally Gross National Product.

“He randomly DM’ed me on Twitter and was like, ‘Come over and rap,’” Lizzo said. “I was like, ‘I’m drunk,’ and he was like, ‘Perfect. I’ll send you a car.’ So he sent me a car and I came over to his place, and I freestyled with Astronautalis. We freestyled all these explicit songs that I hope never see the light of day.”

Lizzo worked on several other tracks that evening that made their way onto avant-electro innovators Marijuana Deathsquads’ mixtape “Tamper, Disable, Destroy.” Her inclusion was instrumental in raising her profile, and other musicians started stopping her on the street to praise her rapping.

“Ryan is the type to play your music for other people, but you don’t get to hear it,” Lizzo said. “People would come up to me [and say], ‘I heard you on that Marijuana Deathsquads song. That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard from you.’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’”

While her humility makes it a stretch to bill Lizzo a diva, she’s dynamite on stage with a party-hearty persona that extends not only to her fans, but also into the studio and to those closest to her.

“She does her own [bleeps] on a radio edit,” said Lizzo’s producer Aaron Mader, better known as Lazerbeak. “She will make a noise instead of a word — she’ll snarl like a cat or something.”

 

What: Lizzo (playing Rock the Garden)
When: Concert starts at 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Walker Art Center/Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, 1750 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
Cost: $59–$400