Music

Lizzo: ‘Special’ Album Review

In the years since Lizzo released her major-label debut album, Cuz I Love You, she has achieved a level of household-name status most artists can only dream about. Singles like “Truth Hurts” and “Juice” exploded on every listening platform and soundtracked movies and commercials. Lizzo herself hit the big screen, appearing in Hustlers alongside Cardi B and JLo. She’s won Grammys, hosted a reality show (Amazon Prime Video’s Watch Out For The Big Grrrrls), launched a size-inclusive shapewear line (Yitty), and been hailed as a symbol for body positivity. Though she’s been hustling in the music biz for at least a least, Lizzo’s ubiquity is relatively decade new, and now she’s making the most of it. These days music feels secondary to her empirelike Rihanna with Fenty.

How Lizzo got here shows remarkable perseverance in an unforgiving world where no matter how much wealth and status you accrue, people will always find a way to shame you for not adhering to a set standard. Lizzo’s shield against naysayers who criticize her body and attitude has been unwavering positivity, funk and disco-inspired pop melodies, and hashtaggable turns of phrase. They have been the hallmark of Lizzo’s early work and appear again on Specialthe recently released follow-up to 2019’s Cuz I Love You. The LP is filled with head-bopping melodies and Lizzo-isms, and finds its author processing immense fame – and criticism – with her trademark confidence.

Differentiating Cuz I Love You from Special, Lizzo told Apple Music’s Zane Lowe how she felt “love is the heart of this album.” Love for herself, more specifically. “I think everything I’ve been doing prior to Special was in pursuit of love,” she said. “And it was like, Cuz I Love You was an almost autobiographical album about who I want to be. When I wrote ‘Soulmate,’ I was crying in the studio, and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m writing a song about the person I want to be, I aspire to be.’ ‘Truth Hurts,’ I was crying in the studio, writing songs about who I want to be. And now, Special is almost a celebration of who I am right now.”

As Lizzo arrived, she had to fortify her defenses against backlash that not only comes with being a full-figured Black woman in the entertainment industry, but being an ultra-famous one. (The higher you climb, the more people want to tear you back down, etc.) She’s also faced pressure to repeat and build upon her success. In a vacuum, Lizzo shouldn’t have a problem beating her own metrics, because, frankly, there is no one like Lizzo. She is a singular entity, unique yet accessible, a leader that is open to absorbing fan feedback (note how she change the words to “Grrrls” after backlash), a born hitmaker who takes risks while appealing to the masses.

At its best, Special lives up to its name with dance floor-ready disco rhythms, warmly delivered vocals, and an avalanche of Lizzo-isms. “Hi, motherfucker, did you miss me?” Lizzo greets us on “The Sign” before alluding to the last couple of pandemic years: “I’ve been home since 2020/ I’ve been twerking and making smoothies/ It’s called healing.” The TikTok juggernaut “About Damn Time” and “Grrls” level up the attitude: “It’s bad bitch o’clock, yeah, it’s thick-thirty/ I’ve been through a lot, but I’m still flirty” and “That’s my girl, we CEOs and dancing like a CE-Hoe.” You get the idea. Lizzo loves herself some wordplay. These lines really want to be part of Lizzo’s finely tuned brand of Whitman self-celebration – eg, “I do my hair toss, check the mirror/ Baby, how do you feelin’?” and “I just took a DNA test/ Turns out I’m 100% that bitch.”

But I wonder if Lizzo hides a little too much behind the self-empowerment verbiage. Across Special, her words come across like taglines and hashtags, ready and willing to go viral with the masses instead of communicating one-on-one. Perhaps she’s feeling the pressure today’s pop stars have described when they’re told to create a viral moment, quick! But make it seem organic! Obviously Lizzo is a TikTok natural, no one needs to push her to make short-form videos. But the industry’s underlying need to always have more – views, streams, followers — may have obscured Lizzo’s original mission.

Which might explain the choice to interpolate so many mainstream hits on Special. You already know how “Grrls” flips Beastie Boys’ “Girls.” There are also obvious samples of Lauryn Hill (on the Mark Ronson collab “Break Up Twice”), Kool & The Gang (“Naked”), and Coldplay (“Coldplay”) among others. Lizzo loves paying tribute to her influences (particularly Prince, Missy Elliott, and Beyoncé) but relying this hard on interpolation feels too safe. Even ’80s pop jam “2 Be Loved (Am I Ready)” sounds birthed from Michael Sembello’s “Maniac.” Lizzo has shown that she’s an original — why lean so hard into what came before?

Special Frequently slaps and it’s got supportive messages packed into all 12 songs, which were helped along by studio titans like Benny Blanco, Max Martin, “Truth Hurts” collaborator Ricky Reed, and the aforementioned Ronson. But given Lizzo’s history of sharp-tongued, left-field lyrics — particularly on 2013’s indie-rap Lizzobangers and 2015’s more melodic Big Grrrl Small World (the latter of which has been scrubbed from streaming service) — Special goes down like a Hallmark card, in the literal sense on “Birthday Girl,” which goes, “Is it your birthday, girl? Cuz you lookin’ like a present.”

Although fierce, friendly, and plenty confident from start to finish, Special As a whole doesn’t really take any new chances, which can be frustrating, because we know so well how capable Lizzo is at shattering expectations. Not that any of this will stop the album and its singer from taking off even higher, reaching new stratospheres of mainstream visibility and TikTok virality. This high-gloss Lizzo might have the edge taken off, but there’s still no party on the block quite like hers.

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