Some breakthroughs, you see popping from a mile away. Others, for whatever reason, you just miss.
Lizzo, we should have seen coming. Prior to 2019, she had recorded with Prince, toured with Florence and the Machine and appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Her first few mixtapes and EPs received critical acclaim; Truth Hurts, a single that’s been climbing the pop charts all summer, actually debuted back in 2017. Heck, she performed on The Late Show With David Letterman five years ago.
But be honest: Who among you actually knew all that about Lizzo?
And who among you only just heard of Lizzo this year?
And who among you hasn’t stopped rocking Lizzo since?
No, in 2019, Lizzo basically exploded into our lives. Even she didn’t realize how fast it was happening. Consider that her concert Sept. 10 in Tampa was originally booked at Jannus Live in St. Petersburg, which holds fewer than 2,000 people. Demand for tickets was so overwhelming that within a week, the show was moved to the Yuengling Center, which should pack in 5,000. That led to giant billboards of Lizzo’s nude, glittery, oiled-up body smiling down upon I-275.
It’s no exaggeration to say Lizzo might own this year from start to finish. If you didn’t hear her shimmering disco-pop single Juice when it first dropped in early January, you might have spotted her on your timeline a few weeks later, rapping and tooting a flute on Ellen or dripping with choreographed swag on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
Barely a month ago, she took NPR’s “tiny-ass desk” to church in what is already its second-most viewed YouTube performance clip of the year (it’ll probably move to No. 1 soon). That was before she started getting Twitter shout-outs from the likes of Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris and Barack Obama, who put Juice on his Summer 2019 playlist.
And her name will still be on everyone’s lips come December, when her joyous major-label debut album Cuz I Love You, released in April, should rack up plenty of Grammy nominations and year-end best-of accolades.
And so, in a year that produced No. 1 albums by Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish, it might be a 31-year-old classically trained flautist named Melissa Jefferson who charmed the world the most.
Which brings us back to the big question: Why didn’t we see Lizzo coming?
There’s an obvious answer here, and it’s that Lizzo doesn’t look like Taylor, Ariana, Billie or any other pop star on their level. She’s a plus-sized African-American singer and rapper who doesn’t conform to whatever stereotypes that might suggest. Despite all her promise, people still underestimated what a woman who looks like Lizzo could bring them. That’s all true.
The less-obvious answer: Lizzo realized she was being overlooked, and used it to her advantage. She knew she had the goods, that she was 100 percent that you-know-what, and she let that confidence simmer for a while — maybe not in the shadows, but definitely beneath the surface of the mainstream. And that element of surprise made jiggly singles like Juice and Tempo leap out even more from the rest of the filler on your Hot Girl Summer workout playlist. They were the sonic equivalent of the words “Who’s that?”
The act of discovering a talent like Lizzo — hearing for the first time her elastic voice, marveling at her live energy, quoting her riotous lyrics (“No, I’m not a snack at all / baby, I’m the whole damn meal”) — yielded tingly new sensations listeners weren’t used to feeling. It got the world off its feet, and the world just doesn’t do that very often. When it happens, yeah, it can feel like it’s coming of nowhere. Even though, in Lizzo’s case, it didn’t.
After she brought down the house with a medley of Truth Hurts and Good as Hell at last week’s MTV Video Music Awards, Lizzo took to Instagram to let her fans know how much that big moment meant to her and her dancers.
“’Imposter syndrome’ is a privilege to the most marginalized group in America,” she wrote. “Not only were we taught to believe we didn’t belong in the spotlight, but when we finally get to a place (of) self-worth the world tries to knock us down. Not this time. The world smiled with us. The world sang us. The world saw our beauty last night. The world saw black women feeling Good As Hell and cheered us on.”
And now they’re all locked in. Wherever Lizzo goes from here, the whole world will see her coming.