Lizzo’s brand of pop-oriented rap music is often criticized as being inauthentic and, as a result, not black enough. The discussion evokes similar criticism other successful black women artists have received.
This week, Lizzo crossed the burning sands into women hip-hop’s exclusive sorority: the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 with her song “Truth Hurts.” Lauryn Hill was the first to achieve such an accomplishment thanks to 1998’s “Doo Wop (That Thing).” Since then, only five other women have done the same: Lil Kim, Shawnna, Iggy Azalea, Cardi B, and now Lizzo. Despite the achievement, Lizzo’s brand of pop-oriented rap music is often criticized as being inauthentic and, as a result, not black enough. The discussion not only evokes similar criticisms other black women artists have received in creating digestible and palatable music and the white fan bases they amass through that, but the idea that one’s disliking of someone’s art has to come with a valid critique when, quite simply, it likely isn’t for them.
Before it ascended to No. 1 and was re-released as a part of Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You album from this year, “Truth Hurts” was a single that originally came out in 2017. Although the song didn’t chart at the time of its release, it became a sleeper hit after a snippet of the song — “I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100%” — became a TikTok meme and became viral. The song’s appearance on the Netflix film Someone Great also contributed to its rise. The track ascended to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early August before taking the top spot this week.
At the time “Truth Hurts” was at No. 4, the artist had vocalized her frustrations with not being seen as a valid rapper in a since-deleted tweet.
Wait…you mean Swae Lee?? Like Swae Lee Lee Swae?? Oh nah that one should’ve stayed in the drafts🤨 pic.twitter.com/OjZX9APS0h
— Charries3249 (@charries3249) August 10, 2019
“Sometimes I get pissed that there are people who call future & swae lee (sic) rappers and still question whether or not I belong in the rap conversation…but then I remember I have the #4 songs in the country, laugh, go back to my dream job and log off,” she wrote.
Fans of both Future and Swae Lee responded to Lizzo’s tweet, which they seemed to interpret as a diss against the artists.
“But Swae Lee and Future make rap music, you’re an artist who makes pop music so it’s gonna be hard to see you as a rapper if you rarely rap,” one user wrote.
but swae lee & future makes rap music, you’re an artist who makes pop music so its gonna be hard to see you as a rapper if you rarley rap.
— DIANA (@KatyPerryx2k17) August 10, 2019
Following the backlash, Lizzo clarified what she meant in a follow-up tweet, writing:
“I LOVE future & swae bruhhhhhh… [sic] the point went straight over y’alls heads…I’m just saying we all share a similar rap sing style…”
I LOVE future & swae bruhhhhhh… the point went straight over y’alls heads…I’m just saying we all share a similar rap sing style…
Stream ‘Sunflower’ by Swae Lee
Stream ‘The Wizrd’ by Future
— Feelin Good As Hell (@lizzo) August 10, 2019
Still, she faced criticism for her previous tweet, fans still dismissing the idea of her being a rapper while using descriptors for Swae Lee and Future that could easily apply to Lizzo too.
I feel like your music belongs under the pop genre 🤷🏽♀️ Future actually raps, swae lee is more of a melodic rapper
— KYELASHAI 🍭💕🥶 (@officialdaikey) August 10, 2019
The 31-year old singer brought attention to rap’s gendered conflict — the refusal to allow women rappers to explore the genre’s fluidity despite a legacy of innovating the culture. The discussion also served as an extension of other critiques against Lizzo that came about following the release of Cuz I Love You, particularly what type of artist is allowed to create joyous and carefree music.
“Black musicians who excavate the depths of racial trauma become lauded as Serious Artists, while those who make uplifting music, with uplifting lyrics, are often scoffed at as corny,” Nastia Voynovskaya wrote in a piece titled “Lizzo Backlash Raises the Question: Who Gets to Make Joyful Music?” “…it’s clear that Lizzo doesn’t get permission to be joyous and carefree in the way that white peers such as Carly Rae Jepsen and Taylor Swift can — easily, profitably and without skepticism.”
This joy and carefree demeanor has been most evident in Lizzo’s recent live performances of “Truth Hurts,” which often feature her twerking and playing the flute alongside a team of talented plus-sized women. However, even this has been interpreted as Lizzo pandering to white people, most recently by Azealia Banks.
Azealia banks attack lizzo pic.twitter.com/VPuxpmb2C5
— nicole145 (@nicole31556167) September 3, 2019
The acceptance of the white gaze is a universal criticism chastised upon by Black women musicians who are classified as palatable to white audiences. The late pop icon Whitney Houston was berated by Black audiences at performances and was marketed as an anti-Black pop star, despite her contributions to the musical traditions of our community until her passing.
“I know what my color is. I was raised in a black community with black people, so that has never been a thing with me,” Houston told Ebony in 1991. “Yet I’ve gotten flak about being a pop success, but that doesn’t mean that I’m white… Pop music has never been all-white.”
Beyoncé faced similar criticism early on in her career, which evolved into an intentional celebration and upliftment of Black culture, displayed by her HBCU-inspired headlining performance at Coachella. Shortly after the seminal performance occurred, Beyoncé’s mother, Tina Knowles, shared an Instagram post admitting that she was afraid the predominantly white Coachella crowd wouldn’t understand her daughter’s show. However, that didn’t deter the star from still going through with it, telling her mother:
“I have worked very hard to get to the point where I have a true voice and at this point in my life and my career I have a responsibility to do what’s best for the world and not what is most popular.”
Lizzo would likely share that sentiment, considering she uses her platform to promote body-positive messaging — from her lyrics to employing fat Black women and femmes in her live performances, including her recent VMAs performance.
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Every woman on that stage had a story of either why they shouldn’t have been on that stage or why they didn’t believe they deserved to be on that stage, including myself. “Imposter syndrome” is a privilege to the most marginalized group in America. Not only were we taught to believe we didn’t belong in the spotlight, but when we finally get to a place to 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. Thank you to the best team on the planet @quinnwilsonn @jemelmcwilliams @marko_monroe @iwantalexx @theshelbyswain and a huge I love you to my beautiful heavenly dancers and singers. Being a big black woman with y’all by my side is the honor of my life, and I hope this moment stays forever between yo titties.
“Every woman on that stage had a story of either why they shouldn’t have been on that stage or why they didn’t believe they deserve to be on that stage, including myself. ‘Imposter syndrome’ is a privilege to the most marginalized group in America. Not only were we taught to believe we didn’t belong in the spotlight, but when we finally get to a place to 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,” the Midwest native wrote alongside an Instagram post of her performance.
That Lizzo’s music has been described as music for white people — particularly white women — not only shows the racial undertones attached to music genres (especially at a time where Lil Nas X, an openly gay black man, has come to define and redefine contemporary country music) but a disregard for the black people who feel empowered and seen through Lizzo’s artistry.
From the eccentric and unconventional Tierra Whack to the explicit and sexually liberating Megan Thee Stallion, there’s an abundance of stylistic techniques in the genre’s diversity. However, it’s often male rappers who are afforded a “genius” title for any genre-shifting experimentation or musical project they do, a privilege unknown to their female counterparts. Yet, there is universal acknowledgment of fat Black women like living icon Missy Elliott progressing hip-hop culture and fashion through her career. That Lizzo’s rise has come when Elliott’s legacy is finally being recognized almost feels serendipitous. As if a baton is being passed, Lizzo providing a necessary representation of plus-sized women like Elliott did before her, and her era in music is just beginning.
Taylor Crumpton has written for Pitchfork, PAPER, Teen Vogue, Marie Claire, and more. You can follow her @taylorcrumpton