Photo Credit: AB+DM
Every generation needs an artist who is unafraid to write cheesy, feel-good, uplifting anthems; an artist who would rather risk being saccharine than sour. Natasha Bedingfield (“Unwritten”), Kelly Clarkson (“Stronger”), and Katy Perry (“Firework”) have all alternately held this title and fulfilled their role dutifully. It would be unfair to dismiss Lizzo’s music as neatly fitting into this specification – multi-dimensional and boundary-pushing, it defies easy categorization. However, it’s also true that with songs like “Good as Hell”, “Juice” and “Truths Hurts”, this mantle is now Lizzo’s.
The role of inspirational spokes-singer is supposed to be an easy, low-stakes one; you get a smash hit or two – the royalties from which can support you for a lifetime – enjoy being almost universally liked by the public at large, and then do whatever you want. Maybe you have a residency in Las Vegas like Katy Perry has; content to now cater to a smaller, more dedicated group of fans. Or, maybe, you start a syndicated talk show like Kelly Clarkson. Or, you largely disappear from the public eye – a la Natasha Bedingfield in the 2010s – only to suddenly emerge as a surprise TikTok sensation.
Yet, Lizzo has had a surprisingly fraught few years after the release of her seemingly impossible-to-hate, relentlessly positive breakthrough Cuz I Love You. Her fashion choices, her Instagram posts – even her twerking – drew the ire of tabloids and social media commentators alike. Just go on YouTube and look at the comment section for the trailer of her show Watch Out For The Big Girls to see the cesspit of trolls who follow the singer’s every move.
Part of the reason for the barrage of hate faced by the seemingly endlessly-likable Lizzo can be explained by the fact that the Detroit artist has always refused to conform to the confines demanded by a society of its feel-good stars – she is outspoken, sexually liberated, and politically opinionated; donating half-a-million dollars to Planned Parenthood after the devastating repeal of Roe v. Wade. But a big part of it is because, as a society, we are not used to – and not comfortable with – seeing a bigger, Black woman unapologetically embrace her identity and use it as a source of joy rather than as a burden. She is not another white, blonde-haired pop star content to merely list off motivational platitudes, she is a plus-sized Black woman who twerks on national TV, sings candidly about her sexuality, and proudly walks the red carpet in nothing but a thong and a see-through mesh dress.
On the lead single for Lizzo’s new album, “About Damn Time”, she nails the formula for a great Lizzo song; bright, buoyant, nostalgic, genre-bending, and unmistakably uplifting. It contains all the elements that originally made people fall in love with Lizzo’s music, all the way down to a flute solo in the bridge. It comes as something of a disappointment then, that other parts of Special feel as colorless as the black-and-white album cover that it accompanies. “I love you B*tch” is Lizzo-by-the-numbers, fit with an exhausting 18 cries of “b*tch”, for a rate of one-“b*tch”-every 8 seconds. “Birthday Girl” is another hackneyed attempt at uplift, seemingly created with the sole purpose of reliably racking up streams and social media shares on birthdays.
At its best, however, the uneven Special shows Lizzo to be a very special pop star, indeed. “Coldplay” effectively samples “Yellow” – described by Lizzo as her “make-out song” – to create a classy contemporary R&B anthem that has already been labeled by Rolling Stone as Lizzo’s best song ever. “Break Up Twice”, meanwhile, is an obvious highlight – interpolating Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)”, with a new maximalist edge. The Beastie Boys-sampling of “Grrrls” is the album’s most obvious misfire. Even without the slur that has since been removed, nothing can save the song from Lizzo’s unusually sub-par rapping, “C-E-ho” puns, and tasteless referencing of Lorena Bobbitt. Still, the left-field choices behind “Grrrls” are largely admirable for their risk-taking and if Special teaches us anything, it’s that a Lizzo who is unafraid to experiment (and occasionally fail) is far superior to a Lizzo content to rest on her laurels.