With a bigger Toronto show already announced, the ascending R&B/hip-hop show's concert was like a group hug, or a motivational seminar with catsuits
LIZZO at the Danforth Music Hall, Thursday, May 16. Rating: NNNN
Lizzo’s musical catalogue is so devoted to the concept of self-love and self-care, it’s practically crossed over into meme status. (Type “Lizzo” and “therapy” into the Twitter search bar if you don’t believe me.)
The rapping, high-note-belting, flute-playing, twerking (occasionally, those last two at the same time) R&B/hip-hop star’s music has always been steeped in themes of confidence and empowerment. That message is writ large on Cuz I Love You, her first full-length release on a major label, which has officially launched her from cult artist to star status. Before the Danforth show even arrived, she booked another show for Rebel on September 19 – which was then, due to overwhelming demand, moved to Budweiser Stage.
The early birds at the Danforth were aware of what a rare treat they were about to enjoy. The artist known as Melissa Jefferson did not disappoint, delivering a boisterous love-in of a set that faithfully brought what people love about the Lizzo experience: the unimpeachable musical chops, the energy, the humour, the bodysuits.
The show began at a joyous fever pitch. The crowd was deafening, and everyone (including me) was beaming. So was Lizzo, who rolled onstage clad in a pink cut-out catsuit and blasted her way, note-perfect, through the searing pop-soul of Cuz I Love You while flashing that signature grin.
After the final climactic note, the music cut out, and she paused, drinking in the roar of the audience. We got louder, she smiled we got louder, she put her hand to her chest, and I momentarily wondered if this was some kind of a bit – but, no, you could tell she was getting a little misty, even from my perch in the back row. She dropped to her knees and hammered the final run of notes home. She had the room in the palm of her acrylic-nailed hand.
Next to arrive onstage were dance team the Big Grrrls and DJ Sophia Eris, who wore an awesome hot-pink flight suit and also joined in on the choreography. They blasted through a tight run of upbeat tunes, which included a fun roller-skating interlude. Some songs got scrunched into medley format, meaning we heard just snippets of Phone and Fitness – Lizzo now has so many bangers she’s forced to condense entire singles into medley bits.
Where that extra stage time went became clear later: earnest, vulnerable, occasionally foul-mouthed pep talks, with nearly every song bookended with supplemental material on the vagaries and struggles of self-love.
Ahead of Jerome, she asked us to pat ourselves on the back for living through heartbreak and struggle: “Not just boyfriends, but coworkers, fake friends, assholes, people who don’t use their turn signals!” Jerome, by the way, is the kind of track Lizzo doesn’t get enough credit for. Hilarious and cutting and laced with genuine pain, it’s a power ballad that lets her play the clown and the diva at the same time. Live, she showed off that ample lung capacity while leading the crowd in a cathartic sing-along.
All that banter might have veered into corny territory if Lizzo wasn’t so fully herself while she was delivering it.
“As soon as I stopped searching for something outside myself… all the blessings started coming to my doorstep like mothafuckin’ Fed Ex,” she said before Soulmate, to a wall of cheers. “Dick be flying in. I’m just standing here catching it” – and then, that awesome machine-gun laugh.
But self-love doesn’t come for free, an idea Lizzo took care to impress on the audience. She shared that she was still recovering from losing her voice at the start of the tour: “People see me smiling, but I beat myself up a lot… Are people gonna get the show they deserve? But under all that self-doubt was self-love, waiting to pick my ass back up.”
She led all us in a mantra: “When you get home tonight, look in the mirror and say: I love you, you are beautiful and you can do anything.” We repeated it back to her, and the last remaining walls of Toronto too-coolness officially crumbled in time for the last leg of the set, where Lizzo stacked some of her biggest, most danceable hits, punctuated by some quality ass-shaking dance breaks. Like A Girl and Truth Hurts were particular crowd favourites, with the entire audience bellowing “I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever be your side chick” on cue.
She also took a moment to call attention to the current attack on reproductive rights in the U.S. Maybe it’s my imagination, maybe it’s confirmation bias, but I noted at least two stone-faced, middle-aged white folks bailing from the concert hall less than 10 seconds into her impassioned speech. (Personally, I appreciated the extra room to dance!)
For Tempo, she pulled three people onstage from the audience – absolute legends – to grind with the Big Grrrls (“Sorry if I gave you a boner,” she shot at one particularly enthusiastic dancer as the trio left the stage).
The good vibes carried through the encore – a jubilant Juice and buoyant Coconut Oil, both featuring way-too-brief appearances by Lizzo’s trusty woodwind Sasha Flute. (If there is one major criticism I would make of the set, it’s that there was not enough flute.)
The climactic heart of the show was the set finale, Good As Hell, when she led us all in an honest-to-god deep breathing exercise: “I want you to take all that love that’s in this room, and breathe it right back into your body. And I want you to hold that love right here – between your titties,” she instructed.
The number began with each dancer running in from the wings into a group hug, which is about what it felt like to be there: everyone bouncing, hair-tossing, bellowing “feelin’ good as hell,” even if they were still learning to believe it about themselves.
No, it wasn’t a replacement for therapy, but don’t underestimate the healing powers of a good dance party.
@nowtoronto | @nataliamanzocco