Indio, Calif. – Technically there are no standing ovations at a festival like Coachella, where audiences are already on their feet. Still, there was no mistaking the one that Lizzo earned two weekends ago, during her breakout performance in what has become a breakout year.
Then she earned another. And another.
Decked out in a red-sequined bodysuit that screamed “Watch out, Beyoncé,” the Minnesota music alum was having a moment. A rather giant, thrilling moment for an artist I’ve watched and admired since they were an opening act at the tiny 7th St. Entry in Minneapolis.
Between songs, the audience bulging out of the football-field-sized tent — which skewed young but otherwise appeared to be as diverse a crowd as you’ll see at a big festival — just wouldn’t stop cheering.
Lizzo tried to coolly brush off that first ovation with the kind of cocky, mmm-hmm hair toss that defined her first big viral hit, 2016’s “Good as Hell.” By the second and third ovations, though, she looked tearful. Left breathless by the unprompted applause, she did what she could to reflect her emotions back on the crowd.
“Welcome to the church of self-love,” she told the audience, underlining her headline-grabbing blend of body-image positivity, inner beauty and classic rapper braggadocio — one literally embodied on stage in her dance troupe of beautiful, full-figured women (and even a few beefy male butt-shakers).
Coachella was the perfect place and time for Lizzo to set up the release of her similarly self-celebrating new album, “Cuz I Love You,” which finally hit shelves two weeks ago after a yearlong buildup.
The record landed at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 album chart last week and was No. 1 for a while at iTunes. Her subsequent monthlong tour — which arrives Sunday at the 2,500-person Palace Theatre in St. Paul — is entirely sold out, and her team quickly announced fall dates in much bigger spaces. Many of those shows are already sold out, including two at the 8,300-capacity Armory in Minneapolis on Oct. 9 and 11.
This looks to be the biggest breakout year by a Minneapolis-reared artist since Prince. Now based in Los Angeles, Lizzo is likely to see many more ovations before the year is out. Here’s a look back on the crucial steppingstone moments that got her to where she is now.
1. Moving to Minneapolis.
“It’s still entirely the boys’ club where I came from,” Lizzo told me in our first interview in September 2012, raving about her new hometown. She had moved here in 2010 from Houston (and Detroit before that). She first stepped out and started recording locally with fellow ex-Texan Johnny Lewis, aka producer Larva Ink, but female collaborators would soon become pivotal to her career development.
2. Forming the Chalice.
Her first smattering of press and radio play came with this fun-loving trio, featuring Sophia Eris (still her DJ and co-vocalist) and Claire de Lune (now fronting Tiny Deaths). They made First Ave’s Best New Bands of 2012 and topped City Pages’ Picked to Click poll in 2013, and their wily and downright wiseass approach to preaching feminism is still entrenched in Lizzo’s act. (See her new album’s infectious second track, “Like a Girl,” for proof.) As Eris said during the Chalice’s rise, “There are still powerful female voices involved, [but] by having fun, I think we’re expressing our independence from men.”
3. Banging out “Lizzobangers.”
Lizzo got a little more serious and a lot more praise in 2013 as she took a trove of beats from Doomtree producer Lazerbeak and ran away with them, issuing devilish boom-bappy rap tracks such as “Batches & Cookies” and “W.E.R.K., Pt. 2” with help from Poliça/Gayngs guru Ryan Olson. The album earned some cool underground cred from the indie-rap and indie-rock crowds outside Minnesota, a buzz that manifested on a national scale when she hit South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, over the next two years.
4. Her first First Avenue solo set.
A month before “Lizzobangers” landed, Lizzo played to a packed main room all by her lonesome as an opening act for Har Mar Superstar, with whom she was then touring as a backup singer. A lot of the crowd knew the new songs, from gigs by the Chalice and her other group, Grrrl Prty. But by show’s end everyone knew Lizzo wouldn’t be contained to either group much longer.
5. Recording with Prince.
It was just a modest appearance on one track of his relatively overlooked 2014 album “Plectrum Electrum,” but that song (“BoyTrouble”) gave national critics an easy reference point when they started writing about Lizzo. It also seemed to pre-emptively validate what was to come in her solo act; no other artist from Minneapolis has offered freed-up sexuality and risqué body imagery as boldly as the man who somehow got “Pussy Control” played on MTV.
6. Just “Say”-ing with Caroline Smith.
Once a backup vocalist for Smith, Lizzo made her first splash as a straight-up pop singer in “Let ’Em Say,” a 2014 duet with the former Twin Cities singer-songwriter, who also lives in L.A. now and goes by Your Smith. It showed the same catchy (if a tad catty) appeal later evident in “Good as Hell” and Lizzo’s currently percolating single, “Juice.” Produced by Elliott Kozel (aka Tickle Torture) and inspired by Lizzo’s real-life reaction to internet trolls, the song set the tone for her social media approach, with a carefree, don’t-even-try-me attitude that has played a major role in expanding her audience and defining her image.
7. Setting off her “Big Grrrl” revolution.
In her stage appearances before 2015, Lizzo was often decked out in relatively plain street clothes, which may have had more to do with poverty than modesty. But she started showing off more flesh — and launching a thick-skinned assault on body-shaming — after the release of her second album, “Big GRRRL, Small World,” which included such feel-good anthems as “My Skin” and “Ain’t I.” Around this time she signed up as a Lane Bryant fashion model under the Victoria’s Secret-mocking hashtag #ImNoAngel, which is about as punk-rock as an underwear ad campaign can get.
8. Opening up on tour.
You don’t often see a hip-hop/R&B act tour as an opening act for a pop-rock band, or a legendary indie-punk group. When both Haim and Sleater-Kinney offered her slots on their tours, though, she recognized the value in branding their shared sisterhood despite their dissimilar sounds. It resulted in another breakout First Ave set in 2015 and two buzz-building Palace Theatre appearances last year.
9. Flaunting her flute skills.
What started out as little more than a stage gimmick during shows in 2015-16 — she’d occasionally bust out her flute from her high school marching band days — helped make her into a viral sensation, to the point where Pitchfork compiled a full playlist of flute clips, and Will Ferrell’s similarly self-tooting “Anchorman” character took note. It was all very fun, but at the same time it suggested that Lizzo is a serious musician.
10. Moving to Los Angeles.
She started working with L.A. writers and producers after signing with Atlantic Records in 2016, and eventually the back-and-forth to Minnesota got too troublesome. Most of the collaborators she left behind agree it was bound to happen. “Her trajectory was always about trying to be as big as Beyoncé,” said her “Lizzobangers” producer Lazerbeak. “To do that, she was going to have to go off and work with big pop producers.”
11. Jelling with “Ellen.”
She’s done the late night “Jimmy shows” (Kimmel and Fallon) in the past two months and even made it to David Letterman’s set in the nick of time to give him a memorable bear hug before his retirement in 2014. But having Ellen DeGeneres embrace Lizzo for her first on-air performance of “Juice” in January not only put her in front of a lot more women but added to her draw with LGBTQ audiences, as evidenced by recent ink from Elle and Them magazines.
12. Slaying it at Coachella 2019.
Rolling Stone, Billboard and the Los Angeles Times all used the word “breakout” to describe her appearances last month. It wasn’t as epic as her idol Beyoncé’s set at the festival last year, but in career terms it may have made a bigger difference. We’ll see. The year and especially the music festival season are still young; Lizzo is also on the lineups for the Roskilde, Glastonbury and Primavera Sound festivals in Europe, and Austin City Limits in the Texas capital.