What’s the best way for a female rapper to announce her presence to the hyper-competitive, male-dominated hip-hop world?
The same way it should be for anyone else who enters the arena, regardless of gender: to spit better rhymes than anyone else.
Of course, Houston-bred, Minneapolis-based rapper/vocalist Lizzo, who performs Sunday at the Middle East Downstairs, has a lot more going for her than that. She’s a solo artist who’s also part of two groups (The Chalice and GRRRL PRTY), the former frontwoman of an electro-pop duo, and a charismatic personality in front of the camera — see the video for “Batches & Cookies” as evidence. But when it comes down to the business of busting rhymes, all the other criteria to support her case as rap’s next female star fade into the background. Simply put, this girl can rap.
“The boys just couldn’t rap! They weren’t better than us, at least we didn’t think so,” says Lizzo on the phone, recalling her early days when she formed a female rap group as a high schooler in Houston. “We had this little hit song and then this clique of boys tried to do rap songs too and we were like, ‘Man, you’re just not better than us.’ It wasn’t like we gotta be representing women and we gotta be feminist and strictly all female. We were just the coolest and the best.”
Her latest project, the solo debut LP “Lizzobangers,” crystalizes that approach: without downplaying her femininity, it’s an audacious, raucously inventive and fun album that’s blissfully free from playing to expectations of what a female rapper “should” sound like. After several failed attempts to gain traction for her solo career, she found inspiration in a instrumental mixtape from producer Lazerbeak, best known for his extensive work with the Doomtree collective. As such things tend to go in 2013, she tweeted at him, he responded, and soon they were collaborating, with producer Ryan Olson (Gayngs, Marijuana Deathsquads) overseeing the project for indie label Totally Gross National Product.
The resulting product, which was released this Tuesday, announces Lizzo as the closest thing we’ve yet seen to a spiritual successor to Missy Elliott. Over Lazerbeak’s diverse, intricately arranged production, she manipulates her voice and delivery for the appropriate desired effect, dismissing skeptics with a witty pair of rapid-fire verses on “W.E.R.K. Pt. II” and “Batches & Cookies,” where her rhymes are breathlessly strung together until her voice breaks (on purpose, of course). And, again like Elliott, she knows when to slow things down and flex her powerful singing voice, as on the off-beat slow jam “Go.”
But despite her expansive talents and strong production, “Lizzobangers” lives and dies by its author’s rhymes, not by hypersexualized imagery or hardcore feminism.
“If you have [sexuality] to flaunt, that’s cool,” she explains. “Nikki Minaj is fine. I applaud her for that. I think it’s all good. If you are confident in yourself and however you want yourself to be presented and you’re doing well and doing it because you want to do it and not because someone is pressuring you, then more power to you. I enjoy female rappers, not because they’re female but because I can connect to them more.”
She adds, “I’m just excited because there are so many new rappers coming out that are actually spitting, and it’s getting back to wordplay and who’s got the best verse. I think because of that it’s a great time for Azealia Banks, Iggy Azalea, myself, and others. I think it’s a great time for female rappers coming up, because everyone gets a shot and whoever wins, wins.”
Lazerbeak, familiar with the typical stigmas surrounding female rappers thanks to his work with Dessa in Doomtree, acknowledges that Lizzo will continue to face some of those same issues as she develops.
“In a perfect world, we should be able to judge her purely on skill,” he says. “But we’re used to no matter how good a girl is, she’s considered just a ‘femcee’ or whatever, and I think that’s not going away anytime soon. I think that Lizzo is still going to have to face that. She talks on ‘Pants vs. Dress’ that she’s going to have to prove herself to any dude who doesn’t know her again and again. But I think she’s so good. I was floored by everything she was doing.”
The hip-hop feminist revolution can therefore be saved for another day, and if that day comes, Lizzo might be too busy spitting her best rhymes to notice.
“The male vs. female thing never occurred to me because I’m not a sex symbol,” she says. “I’m not a girl who started getting into music and using my femininity to get attention. When I was getting into it, it was all pure skill. No one said, ‘this is the best female rapper.’ It’s more like, ‘Lizzo can really rap.’ I think its because I’m not that sexy girl. I’m that beast girl.”Martin Caballero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_el_caballero.