These days, Lizzo is all photo shoots and peach emoji, a triumphant star embarking on national tours with Haim and Florence + the Machine. Fans thirst for her next album; outlets such as the New York Times and Teen Vogue afford her coverage. But no matter how high their “Good As Hell” play counts, many could stand to try her debut album, Lizzobangers: a Minneapolis culture-changer that shows she was headed for stardom all along.
“I can’t believe it’s been five years,” producer Lazerbeak says when I get him on the phone. The mid-30s dad is best known as a beatmaker in Minneapolis crew Doomtree. But Lizzobangers has its roots in his album Lava Bangers, a 20-pack of beats he released under his own name in 2012.
Producers don’t always share beats with the public, but turn-of-the-decade Lazerbeak had something to prove. “I put out my indie-pop singing album [Legend Recognize Legend] in 2010,” he says, “and [DJ] Plain Ole Bill was like, ‘Everyone thinks you’re soft ’cause you just put out this hokey album about death. You gotta remind ’em that you’re a boss.'”
Meanwhile, Lizzo was on the move to Minnesota. Without a car or much cash, she followed her bandmate the Larva Ink north — and found the Twin Cities music community. Months later, she’d co-founded groups like the Chalice, GRRRL PRTY, and Tha Clerb. Performing set after set at dark bars (Honey in Northeast Minneapolis; Seward dive the Hexagon; Dinkytown’s iconic Kitty Cat Klub), she started to build a reputation. On Feb. 20, 2012, she tweeted, “Man, I love MPLS. Feels like I was from here.. Or at least I belong. And it’s because of yall I feel so at home.”
Man, I love MPLS. Feels like I was from here.. Or at least I belong. And it's because of yall I feel so at home.
— |L I Z Z O| (@lizzo) February 20, 2012
By late 2012, Lizzo felt stuck in her writing. Enter Lava Bangers, the Lazerbeak beat album; it kicked up inspiration, and a few tweets later, Beak and Minneapolis producer Ryan Olson had agreed to collaborate on an album. (Lizzobangers‘ “Go,” “Hot Dish,” “Faded,” and “Wat U Mean” take beats directly from Lava Bangers; Lizzo also wrote to the beat “Lift Every Voice,” but that song didn’t make the cut.)
Recording Lizzobangers was just the kind of scrappy operation you might imagine. “We made that album with no money,” Lazerbeak says. “We had zero expectations.” He describes their freezing, after-hours recording sessions: “I remember almost dying with her in my car a bunch, because we’d leave Ryan’s at 3 a.m., and there’d be a sheet of ice covering the city.”
But less than a year after its Totally Gross debut, Virgin Records picked it up for a wide release. “People gravitated toward it,” Lazerbeak says. The team added “Luv It” to the track list and kept on building her career.
If you listen now, Lizzobangers sounds coarse compared to the slick 2018 single “Boys” and the hooky EP Coconut Oil. It’s relatively rude and rough, an album of rap heat (“Faded”; “W.E.R.K. Pt. II”) instead of pop songs. Unlike Lizzo’s subsequent releases, it’s speckled with the N-word.
It’s also way more personal. “Pants vs. Dress” recounts a particular SXSW freestyle battle and Lizzo’s move to Minneapolis. In “Hot Dish,” she gets real about grieving her dad:
While I talk I remember those who paid the price
I lost my pops man I wish he was alive
I can’t let go of the past, he never heard me rap
So I carry his spirit on my back in Minneap
One of the least orthodox things about Lizzobangers is Cliff Rhymes’ contribution. After meeting Ryan Olson through Marijuana Deathsquads, he wound up as Lizzo’s hype man, repeating and reacting to her words all over Lizzobangers. “A lot of times, people have a hype man on stage, but you’re not going to hear them on the record,” Lazerbeak says. “So this idea that there would be a cohesive second voice that’s literally just there to give confidence to the main attraction — we’ve never done that.”
These days, Cliff Rhymes is working on dark electronic music as Nones Proj, but he says he learned how to perform with Lizzo. “Nobody really knows me from Lizzo in the electronic community. It may be a different genre, but the formula is still the same […] if you watch a show and the person isn’t hype, you’re not going to really get that hype either. But she would get really into it, and so would I.”
I ask if he could’ve predicted Lizzo’s recent success. Almost immediately, he says, “I could see it was going that way.” He brings up her determination: “A couple times we [had to] practice in Lazerbeak’s car. She was like, ‘Well, we’re going to practice in this car then.'”
Lazerbeak also sounds unsurprised. He says, “I mean, she’s a star. People talk about that star quality, and she’s got it. You know it from the second you talk to her — you don’t really even have to hear her sing or rap. People want to be around that.”
Of course, Beak wasn’t stunned when Lizzo started working with other producers: “She’s always, to me, wanted to be on this mainstream level. As that begins to happen, it’s totally apparent a lot of things need to change. The production is part of that.” Sounding satisfied with those words, he loosens his cadence. “I wouldn’t put it past us to link up again at some point in our lives. In the meantime, it’s fun to watch.”
Lizzo may not live in the Twin Cities anymore, but she certainly left an impact. On diversity in the Minnesota rap scene, Lazerbeak says, “In the last 10 years, I’ve seen a legit change. And I think people like Lizzo help to foster that. When you have a 25-year-old black woman take over [the scene] within a matter of six months, people take note. In a rap scene that has been more white and probably more segregated than it needed to be, things like that record really do matter.”
I’ve seen a lot of big Lizzo shows — her first time headlining First Avenue, her main-stage success at Soundset — but I’ve never been more impressed than when she uplifted a whole room before Haim. She’s always had a huge personality, and she channels it into a positive stage presence. She’s always loved TLC, and she led a “No Scrubs” crowd sing-along. I did suffer vertigo when she called 2015’s “En Love” “an oldie but goodie” — how ancient does that make Lizzobangers? But I reveled in her spot-on autobiography: “I’m still that twerkin’, rachet-ass bitch from the Chalice…just with cuter outfits.”
For more of The Current’s Lizzo coverage, click through the timeline we built of her Minneapolis years.