No kings? Twin Cities hip hop's bold new era

Anna Gulbrandsen
The signs had been there for months, but it was only as 2013 neared its end that they became fully unavoidable. It was then, at the beginning of December, that Rhymesayers announced its latest signing -- and its first local one in what seemed like ages -- in the form of Prof. The Jameson-swilling problem child entered with his normal bravado, in an obscenity-laced video that featured a dig at Macklemore and came with the all-important blessing of Slug, who made his own cameo.

They could dress it up however they liked, but the subtext was clear: The rap game in the Twin Cities has changed dramatically, and even the mighty Rhymesayers is moving with the times.

Long before the news of Prof's signing had been made official, it was another up-and-coming rapper, Lizzo, who had blazed a trail through the local music community. It started in the summer of 2012, when the Detroit- and Houston-reared MC dropped her first single as a member of the female hip-hop trio, the Chalice, and went into instant rotation on local radio. From there, the group won that year's Picked to Click contest -- and then, in an unprecedented feat for rappers, Lizzo repeated as the winner in 2013, this time as a solo artist.

Certainly, the time was ripe for someone with the star quality of Lizzo. Twin Cities hip hop, while fertile, had been ruled for too long by a handful of the same people. Familiar voices within Rhymesayers' stable of artists and also the Doomtree crew formed the gold standard. While you can chart progress within those acts -- new collaborations, new experimentation with sound -- there have been a lot of hungry MCs eager to emerge alongside the established greats. These other factions of the community flourished below the surface, but none really challenged the status quo.

But Lizzo is a very different proposition. She's a far cry from the "conscious" or "backpack" rapper that has historically been the Minnesota archetype (and the sometime butt of Prof's jokes), a smart and insightful lyricist who doesn't concern herself with political rhetoric or philosophical discourse. Those things are embedded in her storytelling, sure, but she doesn't shy away from the glitz and glamour of hip hop culture, either -- rather, she uses them to augment her raw talents as a performer. She sings a lot too.

In fact, Lizzo's greatest appeal lies in her force of personality. She is this state's first bona-fide diva -- a strong, confident woman in the vein of Beyonce or Missy Elliott, who prides herself on her style and her sex appeal. In other words, her music is fun, but it's not just a party; a crucial part of that fun is that the girls (or GRRL PRTY, if you will) can have as much fun as the boys, without feeling embarrassed, and without having to do so on the boys' terms.

If anything, the boys have had to catch up with Lizzo. Her debut album, LIZZOBANGERS, was produced by Doomtree beat-master Lazerbeak, but this was no mere cop to the crew. A rapper she may be, but Lizzo's roots are imbued with rock, prog, and plenty of other diverse influences. As a sonic piece, LIZZOBANGERS is ambitious, following her lead as she explores her prodigious skills -- through slow jams, club bangers, and earsplitting noise -- rather than the other way around.

At this stage, Lizzo is more than just the hottest rapper in the Twin Cities; she's the hottest musician in Minnesota, period. (And her performance Friday at the Current's Birthday Party has been sold out for a while now.) But in and of itself, her success doesn't necessarily constitute a trend in local hip hop so much as it proves her own inimitable appeal. And that's where Prof comes in.

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