Caroline Smith and Lizzo started their set on Friday night with "Let Em Say." It was a bold move, leading off with their new single and potential hit. It's a great pop song, funky and dynamic with the easy catchiness that drives repeat listens. A less confident act might have saved the track for a finale or encore. But it proved to be a great way to set the tone. Showcasing Lizzo and Smith in a jointly produced track highlighted the many things their sounds have in common -- namely, their high energy R&B vocal style -- that might not be immediately apparent to those who only know Lizzo as a rapper and only know Caroline Smith as an indie-folk singer. It also immediately made apparent what anyone who pays attention in the Twin Cities already knows: Caroline Smith and Lizzo run shit.
Crowds at Mainroom shows for local acts tend to be very enthusiastic, but the fans who came out on Friday set a new standard in appreciation. It sounded like they wanted an encore after almost every song. Anticipation likely played a role -- Caroline Smith and Lizzo have been collaborators in the Twin Cities music scene for more than a year now. They've frequently shared the stage live, and influenced each others' work on record. But all of this cross-pollination didn't fully flower until very recently. Their first release as a duo, the Tickle Torture-produced "Let Em Say," has been out for a little over a month, and the Lake Street strolling video came out this weekend. And of course, this gig was their first as joint headliners. The fact that they were able to hold it at First Avenue, twice, and draw a full crowd both nights speaks to how brightly their stars shine together.
Though they only have one song that they can jointly call their own -- and they opened the set with it -- Smith and Lizzo held together a two-hour set that could have easily become very disjointed. There were a few instances when the transition from a Lazerbeak-controlled heavy beat to a slow soul groove was slightly jarring, but they were the exception, not the rule. Each singer took turns singing backup for the other, and Lizzo contributed a verse to a few Caroline Smith tracks, notably "All That I Know Is (I'm Your Baby)." For one suite of songs in the middle of the set, the two artists, friends and birthday twins, sat on stools next to each other, bringing the focus to their pure, simple vocal power -- to the greatest effect on a duet of Smith's "Kind of Man." Whenever the two of them were on stage together, the chemistry was palpable.
Though the team's closer collaborations stood out, most performances were led by one artist or the other. Smith seemed to sacrifice a small measure of her voice's smokiness for more power. Her vocals were a departure from their recorded counterparts, at times to the detriment of subtle elements, like the texture of "Tank Top," one of the few offerings from the Goodnight Sleeps days. But more often, they made for stronger performances, like an especially anguished "Child of Moving On" near the end of the set. Lizzo was, well, Lizzo, combining technical skill and performance savvy along with a lot of "it" factor.
A perfect illustration of that was on "Bloodlines," which was dedicated to her father, who passed before hearing his daughter rap -- his birthday was on Sunday. Before performing the track, she pointed her mom out and then pulled out a little known part of her repertoire -- the flute -- laying down a riff based on the track's backing loop. A particularly percussive "Faded" ("Rumors that the world gonna end don't phase me/Imma get faded") closed the set, leaving Lizzo spent, face down on the stage.
The night was first and foremost about music, obviously. But many of the tracks, and the structure of the set as a whole, put forth a message of empowerment, especially for women. "Let Em Say" tells its listeners that haters are nothing against self-love and it puts its money where its mouth is, with all proceeds from the sale going to the Women's Foundation of Minnesota, who also played a role in this weekend's shows. The night was full of performances that put strength and defiance of the dominant voices of culture front and center.
The most notable of these came during "Magazine," Smith's floaty track looking at the chasm between media ideals and real-life needs and desires. Lizzo stepped in with a verse for the occasion, and her machine-gun delivery sounded surprisingly great weaving through the background singer's harmonies, which were consistently excellent all night. During an interlude after the verse, the two of them shared their experience as women entertainers. "I'm gonna be real with you guys. I entered the music industry when I was 16 years old," Smith said, "and they said I would be perfect if I lost 15 pounds. What do we say to that? We say fuck you!" Lizzo added: "Some days my clothes fit too tight, some days they fit too loose, but every day I look in the mirror and tell myself I'm beautiful!"
"You know what," Lizzo said, "rappers rap without their shirts all the time -- hold this." She handed the mic off to Caroline and whipped off her sequined top, revealing a lacy black bustier. Smith followed suit, and they were joined on stage for the final chorus by every woman who performed with them, plus a few more, all in their underwear in an homage to the song's music video. Tickle Torture was also on stage in a rhinestone thong carrying confetti guns. The dancing was silly and loose. Don't get me wrong -- those two can dance and wield sex appeal with the best of them, and it takes a lot of skill to be so casual on stage and still put in a good performance. The show mostly looked like friends having fun -- which, in a big way, it was.
That sense of fun carried throughout the night. Smith opened her performance of "Buy Me" with a story of an unfortunate chump who tried to go Dutch on a $3 slice of pizza on a date. "Don't fuck with a woman's pizza," she said, hopefully coining a new standard of chivalry. At one point, Lizzo brought Tickle Torture on stage -- clad in full glittery obscene regalia -- and implored him to "twerk like he's never twerked before" and rode him around like a horse. GRRRL Prty brought out glitter-filled balloons to go along with their performance, which quickly popped over the audience and the stage.
The encore was a cover of Beyonce's "Run the World (Girls)," and they had the charisma to pull it off. It's safe to say that if you missed the shows this weekend, you'll have another shot at seeing Caroline Smith and Lizzo run things together in the Twin Cities -- I don't see anyone catching up anytime soon.
Personal Bias: I'm a big Lizzo fan and I've seen her perform about five times in various capacities, but I'm kind of embarrassingly new to Caroline Smith. The first time I heard her perform she was covering the 2 Chainz verse from Drake's "All Me" at a GRRRL Prty show.
Let Em Say
All That I Know
Batches and Cookies
Buy Me Something
Werk Pt. 2
Half About Being a Woman
Kind of Man
Bus Passes and Happy Meals
Wat U Mean
The One Thing
Child of Moving On
Run the World (Girls)