Lizzo on Cuz I Love You, playing flute, and grieving through music

You know you’ve arrived when your manicurist comes to you. Though today isn’t Lizzo’s first cuticle-tending session, it might be one of her more chaotic. “I was at rehearsals, simultaneously getting my nails done, and y’all called,” she tells EW. In the weeks leading up to the release of her third LP, Cuz I Love You, the Detroit-born, Houston-raised songwriter seems to be everywhere at once. When she hops on the phone, she’s taking a quick break, calmly micromanaging her coffee order while fielding questions. “Everybody be talking like they’re busy all the time, but bitch, my days don’t even make sense,” she says. One look at her unstoppable social media feed and you’ll see what she means. Over the span of two weeks in March, Lizzo surprise-released a single with Missy Elliott (the life-affirming, body-positive bop “Tempo”), gave a mic-drop-worthy performance at the GLAAD Media Awards, and went on a beauty-standard-obliterating tear across several national magazines.

But far from complaining, Lizzo is in her glory. “I love this s—. This is the s— I was born to do. When I was little I would play with my toys and I would write books and I would read and I would be in extracurricular classes and practicing flute, then I would pass out at 4 a.m. and wake up at 7 a.m. and do it all over again.”

For those who have been following her career for the past six years, the attention is long overdue. But even for listeners who weren’t day-one stans, Lizzo’s mainstream arrival seems like a no-brainer. As a vocalist, she can spit lines with unforgiving ferocity in one breath and hit high notes in the next. She’s also a hilarious, magnetic beacon of confidence, self-possessed far beyond her 30 years.

Though she’s been releasing critically beloved solo records since 2013, Cuz I Love You is poised to turn Lizzo into a household name. “It’s definitely the most fun and the most free record I’ve made,” she says. “All the projects I’ve done before, it was like, ‘This is a good song.’ But with this project, I’m like, ‘Damn, I can’t wait to hear that s— in the stadium!’”

Recorded throughout 2018, the album comes on the heels of three years of painstaking personal and professional work — a fantastic and fierce collection of songs that showcase every nuance of Lizzo’s infectious personality and singular vision. There are twerkable bangers (see: the aforementioned collaboration with Missy) and affecting soul ballads, like the album’s powerful title track, which finds Lizzo showcasing her singing chops in a way she never has before. “For a long time I didn’t want to be that big black girl with a soulful voice,” she says. “That’s how we were tokenized — the big black girls were always the belters, and I’ve always been afraid of being put into that box. But you know what? I’m a big, fat black girl that can sing, and I can rap, and I can dance. I started to embrace how good I can finally sing, and now I’m celebrating that.”

Born Melissa Jefferson in Detroit, before her family moved to Houston when she was 9, Lizzo was raised primarily on gospel music. She came to hip-hop later than most of her classmates, but when she did, dove in headfirst. Around the age of 14 the budding MC taught herself how to write rhymes and formed rap groups with her girlfriends. She also took up flute and joined the marching band. The instrument has since become a vital (and viral) part of the Lizzo experience. It appears on all her albums, is busted out when she plays live, and now even has its own name: Sasha Flute, a riff on Beyoncé’s alter ego, Sasha Fierce.

Lizzo studied music performance at the University of Houston before making the decision to pursue music professionally during her junior year. At 19 she answered a Craigslist ad for a singing gig, determined to charm strangers with her personality and her raps. “I was like, ‘F— it,’” she remembers. “I was cut off from a lot of the people I was staying with, and I just felt very alone in the world.” At 20 she lost her father and sank into a deep depression. “It was the worst year of my life. I was emotional, I was lonely, I was grieving,” she remembers. “[Music] was all I could do to just focus on picking up the f—ing pieces.”

To regroup, she moved to Minneapolis and found a new, welcoming fellowship of artists and collaborators. In 2013 she wrote and recorded her solo debut, Lizzobangers, but it was her 2015 follow-up, Big Grrrl Small World, that led to a record deal with Atlantic and brought her to Los Angeles. In 2016 she dropped her EP, Coconut Oil, and eventually started opening shows for artists like Haim and Florence + the Machine. Her fan base exploded in the process.

Cuz I Love You captures the bombastic, emotional, radiant confidence that has poured out of Lizzo from the start. “I wanted to put who the f— I am right now into a song,” she says, recalling a 2017 conversation with songwriter Theron Thomas, who helped her early in the process to see the album’s big vision. “I remember him telling me, ‘You that big bitch that say whatever she want to say. You gotta be like a hood-ass Aretha,’” she recalls, laughing. “I was like, damn, because I couldn’t see that in myself. But he could see that in me.”

And now so can the millions who are watching, and looking to Lizzo for the kind of fun-loving, inclusive, positivity-filled messages that we all could use a little more of in 2019. “If I was 19 right now, I would be f—ing terrified,” she says. “But I’m older, I’m wiser, I’m feeling like I’m getting actualized. I genuinely care about living a quality life, and if y’all gonna look up to that, then that’s cool! I want people to be happier. I’ve seen how sick the world is, I’ve seen how sad people can be—I’ve been that person—and I genuinely want to use my gifts and the talents that I was blessed with to make sure that s— is even a fraction less sad than it is now.”

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