meta-scriptLizzo's Road To 'Special': How Beyoncé, Prince & Self-Love Helped Find Her Destiny As Pop's Confidence Queen | GRAMMY.com
Lizzo Performance Photo 2022
Lizzo at her iHeartRadio Album Release Party at the iHeartRadio Theater LA in July 2022.

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartRadio

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Lizzo's Road To 'Special': How Beyoncé, Prince & Self-Love Helped Find Her Destiny As Pop's Confidence Queen

With her fourth album, 'Special,' the three-time GRAMMY winner pursues the art of making flawless songs — while continuing to make music that inspires.

GRAMMYs/Jul 15, 2022 - 03:03 pm

Just four years ago, Lizzo was a flute-slaying star on the rise who idolized Beyoncé. Now, she and Queen Bey are releasing two of the summer's most anticipated albums just two weeks apart.

Lizzo's fourth album, Special, is the follow-up to 2019's GRAMMY-winning album Cuz I Love You. Arriving July 15, the album is buoyed by the No. 1 hit "About Damn Time," a disco-inspired anthem that's on the level of the artist who has inspired her most. (Beyoncé's seventh studio album, 'Renaissance,' is due July 29.)

Born in Detroit, Lizzo — whose birth name is Melissa Jefferson — moved to Bey's hometown of Houston when she was 10. As Lizzo began developing her skills as a flutist, Beyoncé was just getting started in Destiny's Child — and the inspiration began.

"When I first saw Destiny's Child, I was in the fifth grade, and it made me want to sing and make music," Lizzo told Interview in 2014. At the same time, Lizzo was hearing freestyles on the radio that also sparked something within her. "All of these influences and these styles started to blend together," she added. 

Over the next several years, she eventually got involved in Houston's indie scene. After joining a prog-rock band at 19, Lizzo knew she had found her path. "That's when I began to say, 'Okay, this is something that I could take seriously.'"

A self-confessed band geek from her tween years into college, Lizzo's musical path was a balancing act between her love of flute and love for singing. But as she got older, she realized that she was being pulled in two different directions in music.

"It was hard," she told CBS News in 2019. "I left college. I basically had to choose between flute or this other lifestyle that I was chasing, where I was up super-late with my friends, goin' to parties, tryin' to rap at shows, and then waking up early, gettin' to the band hall, rehearsing, being on the field, taking math class, which was torture.

"I was juggling a lot of lifestyles," she continued. "And simultaneously, in my personal life, my family was being, you know, torn apart. So, I didn't really have that type of support at that time in my life. And my father had started getting sick. And my mom moved away, because she needed to make money to support my dad and what he was going through and support her children."

Within a matter of years, Lizzo's future became perhaps more uncertain than ever: She dropped out of college, her dad passed away, and she quit the rock band she'd joined. "Twenty-one was the worst year of my life," she revealed to Teen Vogue in 2018. "I was addicted to the gym, I didn't eat and I was sleeping in a dusty car, all for music. I thought my life was over."

But through all of the hardships, one constant remained: Beyoncé.

"When I dropped out of college and I was really depressed, I listened to [Beyoncé's 2006 album] B'Day on repeat and I would just sing B'Day all the time," Lizzo said during her episode of Carpool Karaoke with James Corden in June. "And I was like, 'I'm going to be a singer, I'm going to be a singer.'

"The way she makes people feel is how I want to make people feel with music," Lizzo added. "She has been my North Star." (Beyoncé even inspired the name of Lizzo's beloved flute: Sasha Floot, an homage to Bey's 2008 album, I Am… Sasha Fierce, and the alter ego it introduced.)

In 2011, Lizzo moved to Minneapolis in hopes of a fresh start. She soon met Sophia Eris, who has since become one of her best friends, main collaborators, and Lizzo's touring DJ. The pair, along with Claire de Lune, formed The Chalice, a pop-rap trio inspired by — you guessed it — Destiny's Child. The lyrics of songs like "Push It" also payed homage to acts like Salt N Pepa and TLC, and teased the genre-melding stylings Lizzo would eventually take on in her own material.

The music scene in Minneapolis sparked Lizzo's creativity and helped change her mindset from wanting to give up to actively pursuing solo success. Her first album, a rap collection called Lizzobangers, came out on the Minneapolis-based indie label Totally Gross National Product in 2013; Virgin Records released it again in 2014. On the album, Eris appears with Lizzo on "Batches and Cookies" — which is also the first song Lizzo ever wrote — and songs such as "Faded" and "Bus Passes and Happy Meals" helped establish her own sonic lane.

After catching wind of her talent, Prince invited Lizzo and Eris to work on the song that became "Boytrouble" on his 2014 album with 3rdEyeGirl, Plectrumelectrum. Her rap verse and Prince-esque screams on "Boytrouble" contain all the early indications of the bad-b**** energy that rules her later songs. "99 problems, but these boys not one," she rhymes on the track.

"I felt like I kinda transcended from being just a vocalist into an artist," Lizzo said in a 2017 interview with Fuse about working with Prince. "That was a huge confirmation in what I was doing for me and my mama. It's surreal."

"And I got
paid! My first big check ever. Thank you, Prince, for my laptop," she told NPR in 2019. (Prince later offered to produce an album for her, but he passed away in 2016 before a project could materialize.)

While confidence has never been lost on Lizzo's music, her trademark body-positivity anthems started taking shape on her 2015 self-released sophomore album, Big Grrrl Small World, with tracks like "My Skin" and "Humanize." After meeting producer Ricky Reed, she was signed to his label Nice Life Recordings, which had a deal with Atlantic Records. They released her Coconut Oil EP in 2016 and continued that important work of promoting self-love and esteem.

"I thought I needed to run and find somebody to love," she sings on the title track. "But all I needed was some coconut oil."

The following single, "Truth Hurts," was released in September 2017, but it would be three years before the release of Lizzo's next album. She'd later reveal that her mental health was tested during this time.


"The day I released 'Truth Hurts' was probably one of the darkest days I've had ever in my career," she shared with PEOPLE in 2019. "I remember thinking, 'If I quit music now, nobody would notice. This is my best song ever, and nobody cares.' I was like, 'F— it, I'm done.' And a lot of people rallied; my producer, my publicist and my family, they were like, 'Just keep going because this is the darkest before the dawn.'"

A 2019 re-release of "Truth Hurts" on the deluxe edition of Lizzo's third album,
Cuz I Love You, was prompted by its popularity on TikTok and inclusion in a Netflix movie called Someone Great. Within six months, Lizzo went from obscurity to center stage: "Truth Hurts" reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2019.

The following year, the song won a GRAMMY for Best Pop Solo Performance. Lizzo — the most nominated act at the 2020 GRAMMYs, with eight nods — also took home the GRAMMY for Best Urban Contemporary Album and Best Traditional R&B Performance for "Jerome," and was nominated for Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Record of the Year for "Truth Hurts," Best New Artist, and Best R&B Performance for "Exactly How I Feel."

"Now the song that made me want to quit is the song that everyone's falling in love with me for, which is such a testament to journeys: Your darkest day turns into your brightest triumph," she told PEOPLE in the 2019 interview.

Cuz I Love You (Deluxe Edition) also includes the lead single, "Juice," "Water Me" (which was also originally released in 2017) and "Tempo," a collaboration with Missy Elliott. Lizzo's confidence grew as people embraced her and her music, and she started promoting body positivity in her everyday life on a higher level. In 2022, she debuted her own shapewear line called Yitty and released Watch Out for the Big Grrrls, an Emmy-nominated reality show on Amazon Prime that highlighted her process of selecting plus-sized dancers to perform with her on the road.

With three GRAMMYs and a slew of hits, Cuz I Love You became a tough album to follow. Even Lizzo herself has said that a song has to be perfect in order to be released.

"You're finally able to listen to this album I've been working on for three years, and I know it's been a long time, and it's about damn time I put it out," she says in "A Very Special Message from Lizzo," a post-song interlude that closes out Special. "But you have to know that I took my time for me, but I also took my time for you. I wrote almost 170 songs for this album to find these perfect 12 songs to bring to you because I felt like this was what not only I needed to hear, but you needed to hear and the whole world needs to hear."

Some of the cuts that made the 12-song
Special tracklist were written over and over and over — including "About Damn Time." She revealed in an April interview with Big Boy's Neighborhood for Los Angeles' Real 92.3 that she wrote about "75 versions" of the song in the pursuit of making it flawless.

"There's ingredients to a perfect song," she told Big Boy. "The lyrics, the way the chorus lifts and makes you feel, the production sonics, the length of the song, what I am talking about in this exact moment and how it affects people in 2022. Not 2020, not 2021 — how it affects people right now."

She shared some of the many questions she asked herself while creating Special to see if songs were worthy of making the album. As Lizzo has alluded, fans can keep those questions in mind while listening to the album.

"Is it timeless? Is it going to be able to be sung forever? How do I sound on it, how do certain words sound coming out of my mouth? Can you make it an Instagram caption?" Lizzo posed to Big Boy. "There are so many things to the songs that have to make them perfect. It may not be the most viral number one song in the world but it's a good perfect f****** song, like a perfect sandwich."


Special is Lizzo with a wide-open heart, ready to give love to the world. No matter how perfect the finished product ended up, 'Special' stays true to the goal she's had from the beginning: Giving people the confidence Beyoncé gave her. But with or without Bey's influence, Lizzo's purpose has been driven by love — and now, she's made a full album about it.

"I think love is the heart of this album," she told Zane Lowe in a July interview for Apple Music. "I think everything I've been doing prior to Special was in pursuit of love. Cuz I Love You was almost this autobiographical album about who i want to be… and now Special is a celebration of who I am right now. It's very present, and I think that's the only place love can really exist — in the present."

She elaborates on Special's love-driven inspiration in "A Very Special Message from Lizzo," adding that the songs are what "the whole world needs to hear." As she closes it out with a heartfelt thank you, Lizzo adds one more uplifting message: "If you don't take nothin' away from this album, I want you to know, you're special, and I'm so glad you're still with us."

10 Must-Hear New Albums In July 2022: Beyoncé, J-Hope & More

Prince performing in 2004
Prince performing at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in 2004

Photo: Kevin Kane/WireImage via Getty Images

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7 Legendary Prince Performances You Can Watch Online In Honor Of 'Purple Rain'

Fans of the Purple One, unite: it's time to celebrate 40 years of 'Purple Rain.' Crank up these classic Prince performances in tribute to that epochal album, and beyond.

GRAMMYs/Jun 21, 2024 - 02:35 pm

Have we really been living in a Princeless world for eight years? It doesn't feel like it. With every passing year, Planet Earth feels more of the magnitude of the Purple One's unbelievable accomplishments. Which includes the sheer body of work he left behind: his rumored mountain of unreleased material aside, have you heard all 39 of the albums he did release?

Yes, Prince Rogers Nelson was an impressive triple threat, and we'll likely never see his like again. In pop and rock history, some were wizards in the studio, but lacked charisma onstage, or vice versa: Prince was equally as mindblowing in both frameworks.

His iconic, GRAMMY Hall of Fame-inducted 1984 album Purple Rain — a soundtrack to the equally classic film — turns 40 on June 25. Of course, crank up that album's highlights — like "Let's Go Crazy," "When Doves Cry," and the immortal title track — and spin out from there to his other classics, like Dirty Mind, 1999, and Sign o' the Times.

To get a full dose of Prince, though, you've got to raid YouTube for performance footage of the seven-time GRAMMY winner through the years. Here are seven clips you've got to see.

Capital Centre, Landover, Maryland (1984)

Feast your eyes on Prince, the year Purple Rain came out. With guitarist Wendy Melvoin, keyboardist Dr. Fink, drummer Bobby Z., flanking him, even suboptimal YouTube resolution can't smother the magic and beauty. Check out this killing performance of Purple Rain's "I Would Die 4 U," where Prince's moves burn up the stage, with Sheila E. as much a percussion juggernaut as ever.

Read More: Living Legends: Sheila E. On Prince, Playing Salsa And Marching To The Beat Of Her Own Drum

Carrier Dome, Syracuse, New York (1985)

"Little Red Corvette," from 1982's 1999, has always been one of Prince's most magical pop songs — maybe the most magical? This performance in central New York state borders on definitive; bathed in violet and maroon, caped and cutting a rug, a 26-year-old Prince comes across as a force of divine talent.

Paisley Park, Minnesota (1999)

"I always laugh when people say he is doing a cover of this song… It's his song!" goes one YouTube commenter. That's absolutely right. Although "Nothing Compares 2 U" become an iconic hit through Sinead O'Connor's lens, it's bracing to hear the song's author nail its emotional thrust — as far fewer people have heard the original studio recording, on 1985's The Family — the sole album by the Prince-conceived and -led band of the same name.

Watch: Black Sounds Beautiful: Five Years After His Death, Prince’s Genius Remains Uncontainable

The Aladdin, Las Vegas (2002)

Let it be known that while Prince could shred with the best of them, he could equally hold down the pocket. This Vegas performance of "1+1+1=3," from 2001's The Rainbow Children, is a supremely funky workout — which also shows Prince's command as a bandleader, on top of the seeming dozens of other major musical roles he'd mastered by then.

Read More: Bobby Z. On Prince And The Revolution: Live & Why The Purple One Was Deeply Human

Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction (2004)

Words can't describe Prince's universe-destroying solo over the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," in front of an all-star band of classic rockers including Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, and George Harrison's son, Dhani. At song's end, Prince's guitar wails for a few more rounds, he tosses his Telecaster into the pit, and he struts offstage. We'll never see his like again.

Super Bowl Halftime Show (2007)

If you're the type of Super Bowl devotee who skips the Halftime Show, please — make time for Prince. When he digs into the trusty "Let's Go Crazy," it's hard not to follow suit. With fireworks blazing, and the Love Symbol brightly illumined, Prince arguably outshined the football game — as he tumbled through inspired cover after cover, by CCR, Dylan, and more. Naturally, he crescendoed with "Purple Rain," augmented by the drummers of the Marching 100.

Read More: Behind Diamonds and Pearls Super Deluxe Edition: A Fresh Look At Prince & The New Power Generation’s Creative Process

Coachella (2008)

At Coachella 2008, Prince offered a bounty of karaoke-style yet intriguing covers — of the B-52's ("Rock Lobster"), Sarah McLachlan ("Angel"), Santana ("Batuka"), and more. Chief among them was his eight-minute take on Radiohead's (in)famous first hit, "Creep," with a few quixotic twists, including flipping the personal pronoun I to a very Prince-like U.

"U wish U were special, / So do I," he yelps in the pre-chorus. Oh, Prince: to quote the radio-edited, de-vulgarized chorus of "Creep," you were so very special.

8 Ways Musicology Returned Prince To His Glory Days

Kehlani press photo
Kehlani

Photo: Mia André 

interview

Crashing Into The Present: How Kehlani Learned To Trust Their Instincts And Exist Loudly

"I want this next batch of music to feel like the most fiery parts of me," Kehlani says of her new album, 'Crash.' The singer/songwriter speaks with GRAMMY.com about embracing the moment and making an album she can headbang to.

GRAMMYs/Jun 20, 2024 - 01:07 pm

After finishing the first mixes of their new album, Kehlani knew exactly what she needed to do: head to Las Vegas. 

The L.A.-based, Oakland-born singer/songwriter had always identified with Sin City: "I’m full of juxtapositions," she tells GRAMMY.com. "Vegas is this crazy bright light city in the middle of a vacant desert that has weddings and also strippers." Fittingly, Kehlani harbored a very Vegas-like image in their head while creating Crash, a record built on blaring neon, glowing smoke, and the highest highs.

Crash drops June 21, and is Kehlani's fourth solo album. She burst onto the scene in 2009 as a member of teen sextet PopLyfe, but their 2014 debut solo mixtape Cloud 19 announced a far more complex character. Their debut full-length, SweetSexySavage, was released three years later to critical acclaim, with two more albums and a handful of platinum-certified singles following. As if that weren’t enough, Kehlani added acting, appearing in "The L Word: Generation Q" and a cameo in Creed III. 

And while Crash embodies the evolution and growth through all those experiences, the record builds a hyper-real language all their own. Beyond any sense of R&B or pop, soul or hip-hop, Crash finds Kehlani chasing passions that refuse to fit in any box, shifting multiple times within a track — refusing to focus on anything but the moment. 

"A crash isn't anything from the past. It isn't the anxiety of what's about to happen," she says. "It's the height of the moment. It's right now."

Nearing the release of Crash, Kehlani spoke with GRAMMY.com about finding inspiration from international music, getting their five-year-old to sing on the album, and their need to stage dive.

What’s it like living in Los Angeles after growing up in the Bay Area?

I moved to L.A. when I was about 17. I had already left the house. I left the house at 14, and by the time I was almost 18 it was the appropriate time for me to situate in a new place. L.A. and the Bay are like cousins. Do we have differences? Absolutely, things that are fundamental to us, but when you leave California, you can really see that we're just like a big family.

Had you been dreaming of L.A. as a place where you could pursue art? Were you already set on that goal?

It was the closest place that a young, very broke person could go and work in music. I'm sure there were other places with musical homes, musical cities, but if all I had to do was get on a $15 bus and go find someone to stay with in L.A., I was gonna do it for sure.

That’s the same ambition that I feel drives this new record, which is just so dense and full of surprises. That includes the lovely retro radio intro to "GrooveTheory," where you move from this ‘60s pop feel to the present. That’s such a smart way to foreground your evolution.

I think the second that we made that song and then turned it into ["GrooveTheory"], I was like, This feels like it encompasses where I'm headed, this whole new sound. 

Once that radio dials in and it comes in with R&B elements, it's producing where I'm headed, but also remembering that my core hasn't changed. Especially the energy of what I'm saying in the song, like, "I'm kind of crazy," it's introducing this energy difference on this album. I feel like that's the biggest change, and that's what's so prevalent in this whole rollout. Energetically, I'm on a whole different type of time.

You can sense it. 'Crash' feels really rooted in self-expression and personal growth, and when you listen to it as a whole, it really does seem like an evolution story. Beyond just the genre and style, how do you feel the way that you've expressed your true self has shifted over the years?

Thank you! That's been the feedback I've gotten from pretty much everyone who's listened, and I don't know what I expected, but it wasn't this. I have realized the public's understanding of me and the general consensus for so long, and I also realized how multi-faceted I am to people. 

People get really confused when I express all the sides of my personality. They’re either, like, "Okay, she makes really sweet love songs," or "We've seen you be political, we've seen you come out, we've seen you be a family member." And then there's a lot of people who are, like, "I feel like she's f—ing crazy. I've seen her in multiple relationships. I've seen her be angry. I've seen her get online and cuss people out." 

I want this next batch of music to feel like the most fiery parts of me. I want it to feel like the most present and energetic parts of me. I don't want anything to feel somber. I don't want anything to feel reminiscent. I think a lot of my albums in the past have been me looking back, and sitting in that feeling and detailing it. I just wanted [this album] to feel right here, right now, which is why the title came about. A crash isn't anything from the past. It isn't the anxiety of what's about to happen. It's the height of the moment. It's right now.

That’s unfortunately a story you hear too often about artists of color — that essentialization, where you can only be seen as one thing. R&B often gets hit with those same issues. Throughout your career you’ve stood up to those expectations, and "Better Not" on this album is such a good example of that. It’s a left turn, a stylistic contrast and an open conversation with the listener. You cleverly fuse that intentionality with a voice that’s stronger than ever.

In the past, I have had moments where I would make the song and [start recording], and there would be so many versions of each song on different microphones, recorded in different places.

"Let me try vocal production. Let me try to go back and work with this version again." I went back and did vocal production with Oak Felder, who did all the vocal production on SweetSexySavage. When I come back to some of my favorite vocal production moments, it was moments like "Distraction" or "Advice" or "Escape" — songs on my very first album — and I wanted to get that feeling again. Where it's lush where it needs to be, but also that I really mean what I'm saying. 

That started with the approach in the songwriting. Once I had the songs and I had to go back and deliver them, I had enough time to listen and listen, to learn the songs and identify with them. We would make music all day and then go out, and we would be in this sprinter van on the way to going out, and, like, bang, the songs we just made, the energy was just different. It allowed me to be present in a different way where my voice is able to show up like that.

Learn more: R&B Isn't Dead: Listen To 51 Songs By Summer Walker, Josh Levi & More Artists Who Are Pushing The Genre Forward

Which again ties perfectly to crashing into the present. As someone from South Africa, I love that the other guests that you included represent different cultural viewpoints. You worked with Young Miko from Puerto Rico, Omah Lay from Nigeria. Having that musical dialogue is so powerful.

We had so many conversations about how America's in the backseat often when it comes to music. We have our moments, and it's fantastic, like Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter. There's a culture that is super American, that is Black, that historically needs to be dived into. It needs to be shown that we do have something here. 

So many people that don't speak Spanish bang Bad Bunny all day. Amapiano’s taking over; Tyla’s going up. It's really not here. So that wasn't a conscious choice. It's just what we've all been listening to, what we've been loving.

Read more: 11 Women Pushing Amapiano To Global Heights: Uncle Waffles, Nkosazana Daughter, & More

Speaking of guests, I wanted to ask about your daughter, whose voice is on "Deep." Was she just in the studio and you got her singing?

So those vocals on that, that’s actually my little sister and my goddaughter. And [my daughter] was in the room and she started singing along. She has perfect pitch; she's always freestyling or singing or making something up. 

I was like, "You want to just go sing on it?" What's on there is her first take. Literally. She did it the first time, all the way through, perfectly. I was like, "Well, that's it, guys. I can retire." 

That track is so lush. It feels so alive. Were you working with a full band?

[Producer] Jack Rochon, who I did a lot of the music with, he just is a freaking genius music whiz. Honestly, he's one of the most humble people that I know, and deserves credit for how amazing a lot of this album is.

Talking about touchstones, there's a Prince energy to the title track. Did you have any new inspirations or influences for this record?

Thank you! My main focus for this album came from going on tour for my last one and making such a pretty, sweet, intimate album, and then playing some of the biggest venues of my career. At some point I had to rearrange the setlist to add in a lot of the album before that one, because it was just more energy on the stage. By week two of tour, the setlist had completely changed. I knew that I was playing venues on this next tour that I've dreamt about, places that I can't fathom that I'm playing, like Barclays Center. 

I do a lot of things for, like, my inner child, and this is such a move for my inner child. Like, You're about to go play Barclays. Do you want to look back and say, ‘I rocked out and played Barclays’? I'm a person who headbangs on stage. I stage dive. I wanted to create an album that would ring through a venue like that. I want people to be engaged again. I'm not looking for the lighters and the somber, holding each other — which will occur regardless, because it's a me show. 

But I really wanted people to be in their bodies, and their heart’s exploding and the ground’s shaking. So that's what we accomplished. I wanted to have fun. This album is so fun to me. It’s a place of fire in my heart.

It took me a second to get the word play on "Eight." I loved the track, and then suddenly I was like, 'Oh… I knew there was something raunchy going on here.'

[*Laughs.*] "Eight" was super fun, and shoutout to the boys that I did it with, because they made it everything for me. 

I didn't come up with the wordplay. My boys did. Like, "This is how you talk!" I was like, "It is! This is perfect." Once I got in to fix things, add things, add my own spin, and finish writing, my favorite part was that it sounds like a Brandy song. She's my favorite.

I also wanted to ask about the Nina Sky sample on "After Hours."

That was mine. I was like, "What can we flip that when it comes on, my generation loses their mind?" And for me, every single time that Nina Sky comes on in the club, everybody's like "Woo!" And then you see how many songs were made from that same sample, and they're all songs that make us lose our minds. 

I went into the room with the producers, and I was like, "So, I want to flip this, but I want you to make it to where it doesn't become one of those where the whole thing is just a sample."

Similarly, "Lose My Wife" balances breeziness with high emotional stakes. Is finding a balance like that just natural for someone so capable of juxtaposition?

The second that we established that [the record] felt like Vegas, I knew what components were missing from the energy of how I feel the second my car crosses the line into the city of Las Vegas. I knew I was missing that feeling of the next morning when you realize you went on this high and you come down. I wanted to create these scenarios that weren't necessarily applicable to me, but captured that emotion. I've been there before, and I want people to be like, Damn, I've been there before. I know this feeling. 

I recorded that song at 4 in the morning with a sinus infection. The second that we finished it, everybody was like, "You can never re-sing that. Don't try to make another version, you're not gonna be able to sound like that again." All the chatter in the background of that song is really everybody who was in the studio that stayed up to just hang out. We had the tequila out, it was perfect. That was probably one of my favorite moments of making the album.

It takes a while as an artist to reach a place where you can capture those moments. You said before that people try to figure you out, and I mean this in the best possible way, but it feels like now you don’t care if they can’t figure you out.

I don't give a f—anymore, yeah. And that was a very important thing for me to learn. I used to care so much, and I would spend so much time explaining myself online, in music, in interviews, on stage. I realized that you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. 

I've been so forward-facing with my heart my entire career that I've left a lot of room for people to consistently pedestal me and then critique me, for people to want to tear me down. I realized I'm just being present, here, existing loudly in front of a billion people, and whichever way that goes is how the cookies gonna crumble. Me giving a f—? I'm the only one it's affecting at this point, for sure.

Angélica Garcia's Intuition: How 'Gemelo' Was Born By Embracing L.A., Ancestry & Spanish Language

Shaboozey Press Photo 2024
Shaboozey

Photo: Daniel Prakopcyk

interview

Shaboozey On His New Album, Beyoncé & Why He'll Never Be A "Stereotypical" Artist

After Beyoncé introduced Shaboozey to a global audience via 'COWBOY CARTER,' his genre-shattering third album arrives on the wings of his own international smash, "A Bar Song (Tipsy)" and makes a declaration: 'Where I've Been, Isn't Where I'm Going.'

GRAMMYs/May 31, 2024 - 03:40 pm

The last two months have been monumental for Shaboozey. On March 29, Beyoncé fans around the world embraced his two guest collaborations on her COWBOY CARTER album, "SPAGHETTII" and "SWEET HONEY BUCKIIN'" — and they were instantly interested in what else the Nigerian-American singer had to offer. According to his label, EMPIRE, Spotify listens of Shaboozey's music (including his first two albums, 2018's Lady Wrangler and 2022's Cowboys Live Forever, Outlaws Never Die) rose by 1000 percent after COWBOY CARTER dropped.

Six weeks later, his growing fandom sent his breakthrough single, "A Bar Song (Tipsy)," to No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country chart — ironically, dethroning Queen Bey's "Texas Hold 'Em" in the process. The song instantly proved to have crossover appeal, also peaking at No. 3 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 chart, along with reaching the top spot on pop charts in Australia, Canada, Norway, and Sweden.

With his third album, Where I've Been, Isn't Where I'm Going, the man born Collins Chibueze is eager for audiences new and old to get a deeper look into his ever-evolving artistry, which he's been honing for more than a decade. He leans into country and the soundtrack of the open road on "Highway" and "Vegas," while also tapping into his talent as an MC on "Drink Don't Need No Mix" with Texas rapper BigXthaPlug. He displays a softer side, too, with tracks like "My Fault," an apologetic and pleading country ballad performed with Noah Cyrus, and "Steal Her From Me," which finds Shaboozey smoldering with his own Southern slow jam.

Shaboozey's massive global recognition may be fresh, but he's here to remind listeners that he's not a new artist. In a candid interview with GRAMMY.com, the singer discusses how he's put in a decade of hard work in order to appear to be an overnight success.

You've topped the country charts as well as pop charts around the world. Do you think we are witnessing a more welcoming era in country music right now?

I think it's definitely a lot more welcoming. All these genres of music now, just because of the internet age and the access to information — like, now I can go watch Tubi, which has thousands of Western movies, and then Spotify, I can jump from listening to a Townes Van Zandt album or a Leonard Cohen album, and then I can go play Future, you know what I mean?

And then I can jump from them, and go listen to The Marías, who are friends of mine. I can listen to some indie rock music, and then I can listen to some Fred again.. or something like that. So having all that at your fingertips, I think, it's allowed for some interesting combinations in all genres of music.

I think we're the generation of paint splatter! I do think it is very welcoming. As artists we are able to connect. We can have our own micro communities. There's not just one way to connect with people now, there are so many other ways. It's different out there now, it's really different.

You're releasing your second album with EMPIRE — how has the company helped you to develop?

EMPIRE has been super awesome. I was signed to Republic for a while, for a year or two, and I saw some article where it talked about Universal partnering with EMPIRE to handle some distribution stuff. I remember talking to my manager at the time, and being like, "We should go there!"

Major labels can get pretty cluttered. Sometimes they just don't have the bandwidth to develop acts that aren't going to take off in a couple weeks or a month or a quarter. They have these quarterlies they have to meet.

So for an artist like me, who is — a lot of people like to describe me as disruptive. It's weird to describe yourself as that. I'm just being me, and people are like, "That's disruptive." But for someone like me, who's like that, it's very important for me to be innovative and push things, and change the way people consume.

I never came in the game wanting to be stereotypical, or just your usual artist. I came in just trying to be like, Man, I love art. I love being creative and that's what I am. Sometimes that's hard to package to everyone. It's like, what is it? For major labels, sometimes, they love to be like, this is pop, this is country, this is just that.

And so for EMPIRE to bring me into what they had going on, and to stick with me within these three or four years I've been with them, knowing that there has been a lot of ups and downs. There've been a lot of [times] that we thought were going to do something that [we] didn't. Because it's a process with artistry, it doesn't happen overnight. They say it takes 10 years to have an overnight success, and it's true.

Your new album flows so well. Was it written to be taken in as one complete piece?

I'm a lover of a concept album. I love film, I love stories, I love payoffs. I love the hero's journey, they call it.

There is a way to tell a story in a three-act structure. And within those structures you have your rising action, you have your hero's call to action. They lead the world, you have your climax, and then you have, was the hero changed? Did they get the thing they were looking for at the end of it?

I'm a huge fan of film, huge on concepts, world building. I want something to feel immersive, so arrangement is big to me.

But before, I used to be super picky about [ensuring that] everything needs to connect, and I had to learn to let that go and just know that that's a part of me as an artist. As I create, I'm telling these stories naturally, so I stopped being too hard on myself about things needing to connect because that would cripple me at certain points. But now, again, I'm just learning how to let it go, and let it come naturally. It's cool to see that people are still saying with this project that there's still a concept there. And I'm like, oh, there is still a concept there. There is still a story.

My last project [Cowboys Live Forever, Outlaws Never Die] was super inspired by western films. Old western films, like, spaghetti westerns, and the whole nature of outlaw, just like period piece western culture. So I was huge on everything needing to feel like it was period. It needed to feel like this 1800s western, and this Black outlaw and his gang.

Obviously, I wanted the [visual] content to reflect that. And then you're realizing…  Wait, every video shoot I'm having to rent western wardrobe and chaps? It's a lot to do all the time, you know? It was a commitment… and I don't wear that everyday, so it wasn't really 100 percent being authentically myself in that moment. It was like, I'm creating a character and this character is separate from me.

That's hard to do all the time. Especially when it's a period piece in the 1800s and you're in 2024. So at some point I was like, hey, I want this project to be more like, I can put something on in my closet and go shoot some content, versus having to find a western town, or a world or environment that fits the 1800s.

Do you think that Beyoncé was inspired by that album?

I definitely think so. I think that's what was cool about her project, and her entry into country. I saw a lot of similarities between the things that inspired us.

What I love about country is, I really love the old stuff that really does play into the old West, the Wild West — and I saw that Beyoncé, she would talk about little things like that, too. Like the outlaws, hangmen and six shooters, and stuff like that. So you can see that she's really inspired by that stuff as well. I was told by her team that she would definitely watch a lot of old Western films through the process of doing her project.

How has the Beyhive treated you since you appeared on COWBOY CARTER?

I love that community. Seriously, that community, they've been extremely supportive from what I've seen, because Beyoncé's message has been about shining light on people that may have been overlooked. So they definitely carry out the mission of supporting the people that Beyoncé supports. They've been amazing.

I would like to say that early on with "Bar Song," they were definitely pre-saving it, they were sharing it as much as they could on Twitter, and there were a lot of posts that I was making that were getting high viewership. You could tell that there were a lot of impressions before the "Bar Song" came out. So they're great.

Did you ever think you'd be on an album with Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton?

I hoped for those things when I was creating my album. I wanted to see more hip-hop artists collaborating with people like that. I was always like, man, if I was given a $10 million budget to make a project, I'd get Willie Nelson or Hank Williams Jr. or someone like that to jump on it. I want to see something like that.

As someone whose parents grew up in Nigeria, what do you think of the global breakthrough of Nigerian artists like Burna Boy and Wizkid?

It's amazing to see. Afrobeat is definitely universal now, global like that. I think Wizkid was one of the pioneers of getting that music across the water in such a way. Burna Boy, too — if you check out his aesthetic, it's influenced by a lot of different things. He's not just wearing traditional Nigerian garments, he's wearing designer stuff, and he's got the jewelry pieces and Cartier. It's presented in a way that that style of music wasn't really represented [before] in that sense.

I lived in Nigeria for a year or two, and when I was there, there was no wifi or the internet. Now I go back and my cousins are on Netflix and on Instagram and all these places. So yeah, everything is spreading out. But as far as Afrobeat, I mean, that music is incredible, the production. It's so infectious when you hear it, but it's cool to see people of Nigerian descent, me as well, having our reach everywhere.

Davido, he reached out to me a couple days ago, he's like, "I need you to get on this record." There's a lot of Nigerian artists now that are hitting me up, and are like, "Hey, will you jump on this, will you jump on that?" I'm hearing some of those guys are trying to get into country music. It's cool to kind of have my own Burna Boy moment right now!

The new album sounds like you really worked on developing your voice as an instrument, with more singing than rapping. Is that a fair assumption?

Yeah. Being from Virginia, we didn't have those outlets to kind of hone in on. I didn't have a vocal coach, or a songwriting program, or anything like that. We kind of had to figure it out on our own.

I think that's why you have so many artists that come from Virginia where they're all very eclectic, they all have this kind of rawness to them. Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Pharrell, even Tommy Richman. He's got that song going crazy viral too. You know the song, the "Million Dollar Baby" song. It's a guy singing falsetto [like] Bee Gees over a hip-hop beat. I'm like, where did you learn to structure a song like this?

This album was that project for me. My manager here [told me] it's working, because I'm learning how to arrange music and write songs that have a broader appeal, but I didn't know that at the time. We were just having fun, just learning how to do it with whatever resources we had. It can get kind of funky.

I think my first project was very funky, and then this one was [made after] 10 years of being in it. You start to figure it out a little bit more.

Beyond Country: All The Genres Beyoncé Explores On 'Cowboy Carter'

Leon Michels, center, poses with Black Thought, Kirby and members of El Michels Affair backstage at "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon."
Leon Michels, center, poses with Black Thought, Kirby and members of El Michels Affair backstage at "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon."

Photo: Rosalind O'Connor/NBC via Getty Images

interview

Behind Leon Michels' Hits: From Working With The Carters & Aloe Blacc, To Creating Clairo's New Album

Multi-instrumentalist turned GRAMMY-nominated producer Leon Michels has had a hand in a wide range of pop and hip-hop music. Read on for the stories behind his smash hits with Norah Jones, Black Thought, Kalis Uchis, Aloe Blacc, and others.

GRAMMYs/May 27, 2024 - 03:17 pm

A child of New York’s ultra-niche soul revival scene of the early 2000s, multi-instrumentalist turned producer Leon Michels has had an extensive reach into global pop music. As both producer and session man, Michels has worked with the Carters, Norah Jones, Black Thought, the Black Keys, Kalis Uchis, and Aloe Blacc — to name a few.

He has held to a specific creative vision for more than two decades, first through his heavily sampled El Michels Affair projects and a healthy schedule of releases through Truth & Soul records and later, Big Crown, the label he co-founded with DJ Danny Akalepse in 2016. He runs a studio in upstate New York called the Diamond Mine North, where he does most of his work since relocating from New York City in 2017. He has two GRAMMY nominations to his name, for Mary J. Blige’s Good Morning Gorgeous and Lizzo’s Special.

Trained originally on piano, he took up drums and eventually saxophone through the guidance of his high school music teacher, Miss Leonard. "[She] is actually the person I owe it all to. She started this jazz band when I was in fifth grade, and there's no drummer, so she asked me if I would learn drums," he tells GRAMMY.com. "I did that, and she would give me Duke Ellington cassettes, Sydney Bichet, Johnny Hodges. She would just feed me music."

Daptone Records co-founder Gabe Roth recruited and mentored Michels while he was still in high school, and the teenager soon became a regular touring member of what would become the Dap-Kings, backing singer Sharon Jones during an early run of success in the mid-2000s. " I joined Sharon Jones when it was the Soul Providers. We went on tour in Europe with them. Somehow my parents let me do it. I don't even understand. Gabe came over and sweet-talked them."

Michels left the group in 2006 after seven intense years, wanting to spend more time recording than enduring the grind of touring. His chosen timing caused him to miss out by mere "months" on the group’s recording sessions for Amy Winehouse’s four-time GRAMMY winner Back To Black. Despite what appeared to be a major missed opportunity, he turned his focus to his group El Michels Affair after initial encouragement from the 2005 album Sounding Out The City, released on Truth & Soul, the label he had co-founded. 

Finding his inspiration in the intersections of soul and hip-hop, as a fully committed instrumentalist producer, he was able to develop an analog soundscape that quickly caught the ears of artists including Raekwon and other Wu-Tang Clan alumni, with whom he toured in 2008. This led to the follow-up album Enter The 37th Chamber in 2009. Samples from El Michels Affair, including those by Ghostface Killah, Jay-Z, Just Blaze, J. Cole, and Travis Scott quickly proliferated and opened doors. Via the Lee Fields album My World, Michels' work caught the attention of Dan Auerbach, with whom he and his longtime collaborator and bassist Nick Movshon toured from 2010 to 2012.

Producing the Aloe Blacc song "I Need A Dollar" in 2010 further enhanced his credentials and provided the financial stability to allow him to be true to his creative spirit, which he has done successfully over the last decade.

Leon Michels spoke to GRAMMY.com about some key career recordings, including his latest release with singer Clairo.

Clairo – "Sexy to Someone" (Charm, 2024)

I met Clairo almost three years ago. I made a record with her that took three years to complete, which is actually one of the longest stretches I've ever spent on a record.

She’s made two records before this. Her first record, Immunity, came out when she was 19. It's a pop record, and it was very successful. But she's a total music nerd like me. She’s constantly scouring the Internet for music. The way people, especially young people, ingest music these days is just insane. She's got great taste.

Her first record was super successful. She made her second record, Sling, with Jack Antonoff, and it was an ambitious folk record, and a huge departure from her first record. I think it caught her audience off guard, but it was kind of a perfect move because now she can make whatever she wants. 

When she came to me, I was excited but slightly confused. What do I do? Because in those situations, you think, well, I need to facilitate a successful pop record, but she just wanted all the weird s—.

It’s this cool mix of pop elements, but some of the music sounds like a Madlib sample. All of it is steeped in pretty cool references and older music, but her perspective is a 25-year-old’s, and she’s an incredible songwriter. It's a really cool mix.

Norah Jones - "Running"  (Visions, 2024)

Norah used to hit up me and Dave Guy, trumpet player in the Menahan Street Band and the Roots, if she needed horns.

As we were coming out of the pandemic, she hit me up and wanted to make some music. We made a few songs and then after that, she asked me to produce her Christmas record, which was super fun because I've never listened to Christmas music. I started to enjoy it, which was weird because I had thought I hated Christmas music. I mean, once you start to dig for Christmas records, pretty much all of your favorite artists have them. I was listening to Christmas music from March to October the entire year. 

After that, we made Visions, which is all original stuff. Norah's just so talented. Her musicianship is actually some of the most impressive I've ever seen or worked with. She's so good that when I play with her, I get intimidated and I forget basic harmony and music theory!

Read more: 5 Inspirations Behind Norah Jones' New Album 'Visions': Nightly Dreams, Collabs, Harmony Stacks & More

We cut that record,  mostly just the two of us. There's a couple of songs where we got a band, but most of it was in my upstate studio. She would just come over from nine to three. She would come after she dropped her kids at school and then have to leave to pick them up. It was super fun to make, essentially just jamming all day.

[Overall] it’s not a huge departure for Norah, but sonically it is a departure, and it's got this very loose, "un-precious" quality. That's maybe a little different from her other stuff.

"Running" was her choice as a single. When it comes to singles — the songs that have actually been most successful — I've wanted to take those off the record. I have no idea what's going to be the hit or not.

Black Thought - "Glorious Game" (Glorious Game, 2023)

That was a total pandemic record — at the start of the pandemic when everyone was completely locked in, we had no idea what was going on.

Black Thought texted me out of the blue, and I think he was just trying to stay busy. So he just said, "Can you send me songs?" I sent him maybe two songs and then he sent back finished verses three or four hours later. Most of that record was just me sending him s— and him sending it back, and then going like that. We had probably 20 songs. 

The time I did spend in the studio with him was, he's a total savant. He sits there while you're playing a song, and it kind of looks like he's on Instagram or f—ing around, you know what I mean? Does this guy even like this song? And then 45 minutes later, he’ll be like "Aight, ready." And he goes in there and, and he'll rap four pages of lyrics in one take. It's insane. He remembers everything;  we'll do a song and then three years later, he'll have to redo it, but he'll know the lyrics from memory.

There's a couple of things that I figured out on that record. One: The thing I love about sampled hip-hop production the most is it's almost always pitch-shifted, which makes a giant difference in the sound. And if the piano has decay or vocals have vibrato, when you pitch it up, it becomes something that is so uniquely hip-hop. The second thing was, with hip hop, one of the best parts about sampling is the choices a producer has to make when they are limited to chopping a two-track mix.  If you have multi-tracks, there are too many options. 

I think that record resonated with people who are hip-hop aficionados who really love the art of emceeing. 

Aloe Blacc - "I Need A Dollar" (Good Things, 2010)

We had just recorded the Lee Fields record, My World. Eothen Alapatt, who used to be a label manager at Now Again, was a friend of mine. [Jeff Silverman and I] started Truth & Soul, but we had no infrastructure. We thought My World would have a bigger reach if Stones Throw took care of the press and distribution. And so Eothen said "Yeah, we can do that, but instead of paying us, just make a record with this artist we have, Aloe Blacc."

I had no idea who he was. And so that was the business deal. We didn't get paid for the record initially. The payment was that they were going to promote Lee Fields record for us. So [Aloe] came to New York, and I did it with my partner at the time, Jeff Silverman, also Nick Movshon, who played on the entire record.

He wanted to do this Bill Withers thing. "I Need A Dollar" was probably my least favorite song on the record. I think I have this aversion to anything that's slightly cheesy, but I've gotten better at it. But at the end of the day, it's just a good song. It got picked up as the theme song to an HBO pilot called "How To Make It In America." And then, it just blew up in Europe. It was No. 1 everywhere. But it never hit in America.

It kind of set me off on a weird path for a minute, because I got a taste of success. And made some poor career decisions. I tried to a do lot of songwriting sessions with strangers.  It was maybe four years until I decided to just make El Michels Records.  

The Carters - "SUMMER" (EVERYTHING IS LOVE, 2018)

At the time, I was making these sample packs and sending them out to producers. One of them was this slow jam, and so the producers called me up and said "We used one of your samples. It's for a giant artist. We can't tell you who it is. You have to approve it now. And you can't hear it, but it's going to change your life." That’s what they kept saying to me. Then they said "It's coming out in two weeks."

So I figured they used one of my samples and chopped it up and did their thing to it.  And so when the record came out, it was Beyoncé and Jay-Z. It was the first track on that record they did together, the Carters. And it was mostly just my original sample with some new bass and string section. So basically it was just Beyoncé and Jay-Z over an El Michael's Affair track. The track was called "Summer," and my original never came out. 

So just hearing Beyoncé, hearing these giant pop voices that I associate with absolute hits, over my song, that was pretty cool.

Liam Bailey - "Dance With Me" (Zero Grace, 2023)

Me and him just have a very crazy chemistry when it comes to music, because it all happens super fast and with very little thought. Sometimes I'll listen to Liam's stuff, and I actually don't know how we did it. That is actually the goal. That’s why Lee "Scratch Perry" is the greatest producer of all time, because he could access that instant input, instant output type of creativity. It just passes through him and then it's on the record. Making music with Liam is like that; I'll make some instrumental, or I'll have an idea and then he'll freestyle lyrics one or two times.

To me, it sounds gibberish, but then he'll go through it and change one or two words and all of a sudden has this crazy narrative, and it's about his childhood [for example]. When I’ve worked with him, he has this same process where it's just kind of "hand to God" s—, just let it happen. I was trying to make something the way Jamaicans did, [like] that brand of Jamaican soul from the mid-'60s. 

Brainstory - "Peach Optimo" (Sounds Good, 2024)

I met those guys through Eduardo Arenas, who's the bass player from Chicano Batman, and he had recorded a couple of demos from them. And they had one song in particular that really caught my attention, which made it onto their first record called "Dead End."

They’re three jazz kids. Their dad was a gospel singer and loved soul and Stevie Wonder. So they grew up on all that stuff as well. Producing a band like Brainstory is super easy, because they rehearse all the time. Most of their songs are written; all I have to do is maybe shuffle around sections or just essentially cut stuff out. Because a lot of times when bands write music and rehearse every day, they just love to play, so sections are endless. 

I'll…have a sound in mind for the record, some reference for me and the engineering hands to kind of work from. And in the case of Sounds Good, the reference for the whole sound of the record was that this is Gene Harris song called "Los Alamitos Latin Funk Love." This is kind of the vibe of the entire record. We just cut that record over the course of a year, but it was two sessions that were maybe six days each. 

Kevin is the main vocalist and he's amazing. He can do that sweet soul background stuff perfectly. And when he does [his own] background vocals, it's this thing that not a lot of people can do where he changes his personality. So he becomes three different people. Then the background sounds like an actual group. 

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