Lizzo review – a joyful, slightly rude hug of a night out

Kitty Empire
Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

“Delete, delete, delete!” yells Lizzo, clad in gold corsetry, tossing her long hair. “Block, block, block!” The screaming from the sold-out crowd intensifies. We are between songs on the first night of two at London’s nearly 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy, and this partisan crowd goes from a steady love-bath of affirmative cheering for Lizzo – Melissa Jefferson, the multi-hyphenated US rapper-singer-flautist who has been the talk of 2019 – to a hungry, feral roar.

Lizzo’s gig has so many high points that you could probably see it from space and mistake it for a major geographic feature. She starts the set in a pulpit wearing a gold robe in front of a backdrop of stained glass themed around hearts, launching full pelt into the gospel-house opener Heaven Help Me. At the end, for a huge rendition of Juice, she whips out Sasha Flute – an instrument named after a Beyoncé alter ego Sasha Fierce – and twerks while playing.

In between, Lizzo makes her fans inhale positivity and sigh out negativity a full three times, like a particularly bossy yoga teacher. Throughout, there is the joyous succour of a crowd of people singing an entire album of self-affirmation back at its author, who fans herself and tears up.

Jerome, a big, blowsy old-time ballad that waves the ex ‘out the door’, has with 5,000 backing vocalists concurring

But this particular between-song moment is easily one of the set’s loftiest, crystallising Lizzo’s central role in 2019. Many pop singers offer performative aloofness. Lizzo’s appeal is her gutsy relatability, the way in which the 31-year-old former classical musician pairs righteousness and body positivity with candour and self-doubt. As Lizzo tells the rapt audience, she was recently contacted by her ex, the now-infamous subject of one of her biggest tracks, Truth Hurts. The story of Truth Hurts is central to Lizzo, formerly a cult indie rapper with two albums to her name, now the holder of both the top two positions on the Billboard Hot R&B/hip-hop charts and a strong contender for the best new artist Grammy.

Truth Hurts first came out in 2017, written in the aftermath of a breakup when Lizzo’s former man went back to his previous girlfriend. The producer with whom Lizzo was recording took notes while she ranted and told her she had just written a great song. Truth Hurts regained traction this year in part because its hook – “I took a DNA test, turns out I am 100% that bitch” – became a meme on TikTok, a social media app; the song also featured on the soundtrack of a Netflix film (Someone Great).

More heat was generated when Lizzo’s latest album, her major label debut, Cuz I Love You, was released in April to near-universal acclaim. It too was themed around the same breakup. (One US reviewer said it was less than perfect; Lizzo took to Twitter to complain.)

The success of Truth Hurts eventually resulted in a claim by two male songwriters that they had co-written much of the track. Lizzo is now suing them, but was ultimately forced to credit a viral tweet by a female songwriter as the original source of the “100% bitch” phrase. That so many people became so invested in the song of a meme of a tweet remains just one of the things that makes Lizzo so tremendously 2019.

As the singer tells it tonight, that very same Truth Hurts ex got in touch with her on Halloween (Lizzo, by the way, dressed up as a DNA test, revealing a bodysuit that read “100% that bitch”).

She then reveals that his other woman also messaged her. A sharp intake of female breath in the venue follows, before Lizzo savagely mimes blocking and deleting them both from her phone and the place erupts into screams. With consummate professionalism, Lizzo then launches into a knockout version of Jerome, a big, blowsy old-time ballad that waves the ex “out the door”, with 5,000 backing vocalists concurring. The song is lit up by a galaxy of phone torches.

Lizzo at Brixton Academy,. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

Lizzo, her DJ, Sophia Eris, and her bevy of plus-size dancers have been touring this album in venues and on television shows nonstop all year, and it is all hugely, cathartically entertaining – a big, warm, slightly rude hug of a night out. Lizzo hops naturally from hip-hop to funk to pop and back again – like Janelle Monáe, she is one of those convincingly genre-less artists – playing all of Cuz I Love You, and its preceding EP, Coconut Oil, but nothing older.

Exactly How I Feel is one a number of funk tracks that reveals the years Lizzo spent in Minneapolis and her time recording with Prince. The title track – “Ahm CRYING, cuz I LOOOOOOOOOOVE YEEEEEEWWWWW!”, it goes – contains enough energy to run a server farm mining cryptocurrency. Long before Emma Watson said anything about self-partnering, Lizzo was singing about not only “feeling herself” but marrying herself too.

Amid the wall-to-wall bangers, a few questions surface. Lizzo performs without a band, and while singing to backing tracks is not rare at this level, it is a shame. The funk and the horns and the nimble, three-dimensional musicality of Lizzo’s album deserve musicians of flesh and blood.

There is also the small matter of the way this latest, most mainstream iteration of Lizzo centres on her sexuality. As liberating as the carefree jiggle is intended to be, a little of Lizzo’s intelligence, nuance and versatility is eclipsed by all the twerking going on. There is a clear line from Aretha Franklin’s Respect (which Lizzo quotes tonight) via Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All through to Lizzo’s music, and you can’t help but feel self-actualisation shouldn’t really be confused with wearing lingerie.

But these are minor distractions. Good as Hell, given a second wind by an Ariana Grande remix, is as terrific tonight as its title. Although Missy Elliott, another Melissa who pioneered plus-size self-affirmation a generation ago, is not in the building, the track Tempo (on which she guests) stands out as one of Lizzo’s most convincing of the night, reverberating around the venue. It links the major-label Lizzo of 2019 with the rude, funny rapper she used to be. Elliott was Lizzo’s role model, the first person who made Lizzo feel “seen”. Now the work of inspiration is Lizzo’s.