Every year, thousands of artists descend into Austin for SXSW determined to turn in the type of performance that could turn them into stars overnight. It happens, occasionally: Over the years the buzzes around Billie Eilish, Amy Winehouse, Vampire Weekend and Alabama Shakes rose from low to deafening thanks to the kind of rocket-fuel performances SXSW has become renowned for. But it’s hard to remember a performance that approached the energy in the air when R&B/hip-hop/soul vocalist Lizzo performed Thursday night at Stubbs for the Ticketmaster showcase.
It wasn’t Lizzo’s first performance at the conference (she was at the same venue during the fest just a couple of years ago) but the timing seems to be right for her empowered, meticulously choreographed and endlessly fun show, which did much to build anticipation around her major-label debut, due on Atlantic later this year.
Lizzo’s got similar ingredients to many other artists often referred to by one name — Missy, Janet, Aretha — wrapped up (and, in this case, dressed in a rhinestone bikini) in her proudly plus-sized body. When Lizzo goes into motivational-speaker mode, which happened a few times over the course of the set, she’s deeply convincing as she speaks of depression and sadness and a world that often doesn’t view her as beautiful — just as convincing as she is when speaking of empowerment, pride and self-love.
That passion carries over to the songs. “‘Cuz I Love You,” the title song from her forthcoming album and the show’s opener, is a barnburner Motown ballad with an earworm hook; her flow on the hip-hop-leaning parts of her catalog (“Boys”) is similarly skillful, although it’s clear that the full range of her voice, an enormous, impassioned instrument, is yet to be revealed.
At one point, unprompted, the audience started chanting her name between songs (this just doesn’t happen at SXSW) and she was brought back for an equally rare encore. When she did re-emerge, her smile was infectious: she knew she had delivered something special.