Minneapolis’ rising hip-hop star gets personal on “Big GRRRL Small World”
There’s something appropriately righteous about the fact that you have to cross Queen Avenue to get to Lizzo’s house—not to mention that her home is mere blocks from the schools and church basements where Prince played his first gigs with his high school band in the 1970s.
The reigning Queen of Minneapolis Hip-Hop landed in the city a few years ago from Denver, and quickly infused her Houston-reared rap and Detroit-bred gospel and soul influences into the Twin Cities scene. If that sounds like the recipe for a messy hodgepodge of musical styles and sounds, you’d be partially correct. But the remarkable thing about Lizzo’s triumphant sophomore album, “Big GRRRL Small World,” is that it doesn’t just throw all of her influences into a blender. It’s a carefully executed, thoughtfully delivered mission statement from a complex artist whose personal philosophies are evolving just as quickly as her craft.
She credits much of that evolution to her time spent working in her new hometown. “I know Detroit has a huge, huge influence on when I started singing. When I rap, that’s Houston. And then all of the music that comes in, and all of the weirdness—that’s Minneapolis, you know? It helped expand the possibilities of what I was doing,” she reflects, sitting calmly at her kitchen table with her hair swept up in a bright scarf.
“The artists that live here, they definitely don’t follow by the rules. They make new rules and they make new normals. It’s inspiring. Nobody’s trying to be number one on Billboard charts. No one’s trying to do that; they’re just trying to make good music. And they’re trying to compel you.”
“Big GRRRL Small World” is overflowing with compelling material, from the banging trap-influenced beats and swagger of “Ain’t I” and “BGSW” to poppier, hooky songs like “Ride” and “Humanize.” Not to mention the one-two punch of empowering ballads in “En Love” and “My Skin.” And despite the fact that her album boasts a long list of collaborators—from Justin Vernon to Twin Cities musicians Eric Mayson and James Buckley to big-name producers like Sam Spiegel, Alex Sutton, and Bionik—the biggest accomplishment is that Lizzo remains at the very center of the narrative, guiding us from one song to another with moments of intimacy and candor.
To create her most personal work to date, Lizzo called on her close friend BJ Burton to co-produce the record. He helped to set the mood and create a safe creative space for her to work at the remote April Base studio outside of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. “Candles and red wine, that’s our vibe at April Base,” she says, laughing. “BJ’s so dope. BJ gets me. Which is rare to find. He’s like a quiet, understanding sponge of emotion that I can just squeeze into.”
While the album’s brash, boisterous moments are sure to capture the attention of rap fans around the world, it’s the quieter moments on the record that allow us to glimpse the real Lizzo: she’s checking her voicemail, writing a letter to a friend back home, gossiping with her tourmate Sophia Eris on a flight to Paris, or feeling vulnerable while alone in the studio. With Burton’s help, she often manages all of those things, plus the wall-rattling and radiant performance we’ve come to know and love, all on the same track.
“We playin’ you homie like bassoons/we goin’ straight up like balloons/we fresh outta that saloon/we steady makin’ them goons drool,” she brags on the album’s standout track, “Bother Me.” But moments later, the beat starts to unravel and dissipate into astronomical blips and bloops before evaporating like a puff of smoke. The refrain “Don’t bother me” slowly shifts into “Bother me,” and Lizzo is left alone with a vocoder to confess her deepest secrets to the night sky.
“It’s this dual expression of being a bachelorette, being a woman in my position,” she reflects. “And the dichotomy of the different emotional levels—like hard, tough girl bragging, and then completely broken down, questioning, vulnerable self, ego-less self—to marry those two ideas on one track was crazy. I don’t even know. Both of those songs were written separately, and then when they came together, it made sense.”
As Lizzo tells it, the latter half of the track was written and recorded in one take on a random afternoon at April Base, when she just happened to be there at the same time as the studio’s owner, Justin Vernon. “I think he had taken a break that day, and we just started drinking in the day. I was drinking vodka and orange juice, and I had gotten slizzurd. So slizzurd,” she remembers. “He was playing the chords while I was singing. And I was drawing from a real emotion at the time. I was drawing from an experience that I’m so glad I’m over, and I was drunk, and it was a beautiful moment in time where we mind-melded and we made something really, really beautiful together.”
By the end of the album, the overwhelming theme of self-empowerment, awareness, and love resounds, and listeners are left with the distinct impression that the past few years haven’t just been a professional success for Lizzo; she’s also taken her relationship with herself to a whole new level.
“I’ve done everything I could do to myself,” she says. “I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum. And then when I met in the middle, and just decided to let my body do what it wanted to do, and focus on what’s important to me—which is music and performing and making sure somebody heard the song and had a better day—when I took the focus off of myself for a while, and when I looked back at myself, I realized that I liked what I saw.”
Now that she’s evolved into a healthier, more mature and self-assured woman, Lizzo says she’s never felt quite so content—and by the end of “Big GRRRL Small World” that sense of playful, peaceful happiness shines through.
“I don’t anticipate romantic love, at all,” she says, smiling. “I’m not expecting it, because I feel really full. If it comes, it’s like not even secondary. It’s like a third. I have my friends and my family and my passion—the actual love of my life, the thing that I felt like I was born to do—to create music. And if somebody comes along, you know, they real lucky. That’s all I have to say about that.”
This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Growler and 89.3 The Current, Minnesota’s non-commercial, member-supported radio station playing the best authentic, new music alongside the music that inspired it. Find more great music content at growlermag.com and thecurrent.org.