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Lizzo’s “Special”: Track-by-Track Review

Image Copyright: Atlantic Records

On July 15, singer/rapper/songwriter Lizzo released her first album since her 2019 breakthrough Cuz I Love You. The album is infectious and inspired empowerment pop that contains surprising complexity in its production and depth in its lyrical content.

A Primer on Lizzo

The singer, rapper, and songwriter we know as Lizzo was born Melissa Viviane Jefferson on April 27, 1988 in Detroit, Michigan. When she was 10, her family relocated to Houston, Texas and she was classically trained as a flutist. At the age of 14, she formed a musical group called Cornrow Clique and acquired her stage name (a variation of Lissa inspired by Jay-Z’s “Izzo”). She went to the University of Houston to study classical music, but dropped out to pursue a career in the popular music industry.

At the age of 21, her father died and she subsequently lived out of her car for a year while trying to make it in the music industry. She subsequently moved to Minneapolis, where she formed the duo Lizzo & the Larva Ink and the girl group the Chalice. In October 2013, she released her debut album Lizzobangers. The hip hop-focused album may not have performed well commercially, but it received critical acclaim and raised her profile considerably. The next year she performed with Prince on his 36th album Plectrumelectrum and appeared as the musical guest on The Late Show with David Letterman.

In 2015, Lizzo released her second studio album Big Grrrl Small World. Like its predecessor it did much better critically than commercially. The following year, she finally signed signed to a major record label — Atlantic records. In October 2016, she released the EP Coconut Oil. The EP raised her profile even further, hitting the Billboard charts, garnering acclaim from Rolling Stone, and getting her an opening act spot on tours by HAIM and Florence + the Machine. Notably, the EP featured the song “Good As Hell,” which became a monster hit for Lizzo when it was re-released after she achieved widespread fame.

Her first major label LP, Cuz I Love You, was released in April 2019. The album was a critical success and debuted at #6 on the Billboard 200. Its success skyrocketed when her 2017 single “Truth Hurts” received renewed attention. It was added to the deluxe edition of the album (sending it to a peak of #4) and became her first mega-hit, topping the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 for 7 weeks. The album is certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America and earned Lizzo a field-leading total of 8 Grammy nominations, of which she won 3 (Best Urban Contemporary Album, Best Pop Solo Performance for “Truth Hurts,” and Best Traditional R&B Performance for “Jerome.”)

Image Copyright: Recording Academy/CBS

During her rise to fame, Lizzo established a persona outside of her recording career. She put diversity front and center in her live performances (e.g., her plus-size dance crew named the Big Grrrls), advertising campaigns (e.g., Modcloth’s “Say it Louder”), and in her support of the LGBTQ community. She became enormously popular on social media for her messages of body positivity and her extraordinary good humor. Both her body positivity and humor were then prominently displayed in her Emmy-nominated Amazon reality series Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls, which premiered earlier this year. She also ventured into acting with a small role in the crime film Hustlers, a voice performance in the animated film UglyDolls, and a well-received hosting gig on Saturday Night Live.

By the time the 2020s started, Lizzo was well-established as a musical artist and a personality and I suspected that she was on the cusp of superstardom. Few entertainers of her generation struck me as more likely to be on the road to icon status than Lizzo.

The Road to Special

After her enormously successful 2019, Lizzo did something that can be risky for an artist who has just broken through. She laid relatively low. Although she was active on social media (particularly Instagram) she went two full years without releasing any new music. In August 2021, she released the single “Rumors” with Cardi B. The song hit #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 (becoming her third top 5 hit after “Truth Hurts” and “Good As Hell”), but it quickly faded when it became clear that it was a one-off and not the beginning of Lizzo’s next era.

Image Copyright: Atlantic Records

Lizzo’s next era began with the March 2022 announcement of a new single (“About Damn Time”), album (Special), and North American tour (The Special Tour). “About Damn Time” debuted relatively mutedly at #50 on the Billboard Hot 100, but eventually climbed its way up the charts, eventually becoming her 2nd #1. In the lead-up to her album’s debut, she released a promotional single called “Grrrls.” It gained a backlash for a term that the disability advocates labeled ableist (calling herself a “spazz”) but she proved herself a class act and garnered enormous praise by issuing a heartfelt apologizing and re-recording the song with different lyrics.

The album was released on July 15 and debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200, becoming the most successful album released by a female artist so far in 2022. The album received strong reviews, currently standing at an average rating of 79 out of 100 on Metacritic. She seems poised for a big fall, as she embarks on her 28-show tour and continues to promote the album. The choice of second single (“2 Be Loved (Am I Ready?)”) is particularly promising.

I was relatively late to the party as a Lizzo admirer, only truly paying attention when I fell hard for “Good As Hell.” But I awaited the release of Special with bated breath and have since listened to the album in its entirety at least a dozen times. Here, without further ado, is my track-by-track review of Special.

Lizzo’s Special: Track-by-Track Review

Image Copyright: Atlantic Records

“The Sign”

The album begins in a manner that is as spectacularly aggressive as you would expect from a long-awaited Lizzo album with the lyrics, “Hi, motherf***er, did you miss me?” But she goes on to reflect on the pandemic and announce that she’s doing great (“I’ve been home since 2020/ I’ve been twerkin’ and makin’ smoothies/ It’s called healing/And I feel better since you seen me last.”) It is an infectious banger that sets the tone for the album with its lush instrumentation, unforgettable hook, and sassy lyrics. It also hints at the more vulnerable lyrics to come with its tender outro that references heartbreak, loneliness, and the healing power of art (“I keep on writin’ these songs/ ’Cause he keep on doin’ me wrong/ And my girls keep singin’ along/ I guess that I’m not alone”).

“About Damn Time”

The album’s blockbuster lead single is a funk/disco/pop hybrid that is utterly infectious. The spectacularly catchy chorus may interpolate the 1984 track “Hey DJ” by The World’s Famous Supreme Team and the song may sample Chris Brown’s “Turn Up the Music,” but the song feels anything like a retread. It feels like a wholly original hybrid of modern musical stylings with the celebratory odes to resilience that were the hallmark of the disco era. In addition to be an ear worm for the ages, also features some classic lines like “It’s bad bitch o’clock, it’s thick-thirty/I’ve been through a lot but I’m still flirty” and “I’m not the girl I used to be/Bitch, I might be better.”

“Grrrls”

Although its 2 minute runtime is frustratingly brief, but this ode to female friendship really delivers. It has a bold and distinctive beat that unexpectedly samples the song “Girls” by the Beastie Boys. It also features some of my favorite wordplay on the album with the lyrics “That’s my girl, we CEOs/And dancin’ like a C-E-ho.” It’s aggressive and delightful and is difficult to avoid belting along with.

“2 Be Loved (Am I Ready)”

The soon-to-be-promoted 2nd single from “Special” may just be my favorite song on the album. Produced by superstar pop producers ILYA and Max Martin, the song finds Lizzo if she’s finally ready for real love after a lot of heartbreak and subsequent self-improvement (“I did the work, it didn’t work/ That truth, it hurts, goddamn it hurts”). It features impressive vocals with Lizzo and includes big belts, key changes, and inflections of her personality. It blends a modern synth-pop sound with a throwback big pop style that sounds like something from The Pointer Sisters.

“I Love You Bitch”

Lizzo was challenged to write a love song and through, “What would a Lizzo love song be called? ‘I love you, bitch’?” The idea for the song’s fifth track was thus born. The song cleverly incorporates the melody of Z-Ro’s similarly titled “I Hate U Bitch.” It is decidedly slower than the prior songs on the album, but is hardly a ballad. It is a soulful, funky song with raw and emotional vocals and clever and amusing lyrics (“I said, gimme your heart, no repo/ Figure me out, no cheat code/ Gimme your hoodie when I’m cold/ Bless your heart, it’s too small.”) This is the first of several songs on the album where Lizzo starts to bear her soul.

“Special”

Another mid-tempo track with affecting, heartfelt lyrics, this song is the source of the album’s title and exemplifies Lizzo’s persona better than perhaps any song she has ever recorded. The first verse finds her reminding haters that they have no effect on her self-worth (“Fame is pretty new, but I’ve been used to people judgin’ me/ That’s why I move the way I move and why I’m so in love with me”) and the second verse turns the mirrors on the haters (“How could you throw f***in’ stones if you ain’t been through her pain?/ That’s why we feel so alone, that’s why we feel so much shame”). In the chorus, she reminds her listeners that they may be broken but they are perfect and she’s glad they are still with her (which I take as a subtle reference to the suicide epidemic among youth). It could easily have been trite or maudlin, but Lizzo sells the message with the help of a classic R&B melody and excellent production from Max Martin and others.

“Break Up Twice”

Here, Lizzo teams up with super-producer Mark Ronson, whose collaborations with artists like Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, and Adele are legendary. The result is a soulful midtempo song that in some ways sounds like an outtake from Winehouse’s soul-funk masterpiece Back to Black. The lyrics find Lizzo presenting her boyfriend with an ultimatum that they only have one more shot at making their relationship work before she gives up once and for all. The song would have been an unqualified winner even without its brilliant interpolation of Lauryn Hill’s hip-hop masterpiece “Doo Wop (That Thing)” in the chorus. This is easily one of the album’s high points.

“Everybody’s Gay”

After a pair of midtempo songs about romance, Lizzo returns to the dance floor with a club-ready disco anthem. The song is readymade for Halloween at the gay club as it uses metaphors about the fears of revealing your true self and the liberating feeling of throwing your inhibitions to the wind. (Anyone who thinks she is talking about N95s when she says “We can take our mask off” is clearly not paying attention). The funky beat interpolates Rick James’s “Give It to Me Baby” and features amusing sound effects and ad-libs. The song’s title and lyrics may seem like “gay-baiting” considering that Lizzo is straight, but Lizzo has a long history of championing the LGBT community and she is clearly associating the dance floor of a gay club with a happy and safe place where people are free to be themselves.

“Naked”

By far the slowest song on the album, it is also the most nakedly vulnerable thing that Lizzo has ever recorded. In the song, Lizzo discusses her relationship with her own body and her fears that the man she loves won’t be as accepting of her as she is (“Beauty is a gift, but curses everyone that chase it/ I wish we could live without no body expectations/ I’ve seen every part of me and, babe, I can’t erase it/ If I get on top of you, you promise to embrace it?”). Her vocal performance is mightily impressive, alternating between falsetto, full-throated coos, and conversational ad-libs. The sensual production is top-notch and the song cleverly interpolates “Summer Madness” by Kool & The Gang.

“Birthday Girl”

The transition from “Everybody’s Gay” to “Naked” to “Birthday Girl” is like a case of whiplash, with the song’s slowest and most emotional song being wedged in between two of its frothiest, highest energy, club bangers. This is my least favorite song on the album not because it is bad, per se, but it lacks the originality and the depth of the other 11 songs. It feels like a forgettable cut from a Katy Perry album and feels like it only made the cut because the label thought it had potential to be popular on social media. The lyrics are trite and the interpolation of fans announcing their birthdays doesn’t work particularly well.

“If You Love Me”

Another jarring transition occurs when the frothy and forgettable “Birthday Girl” segues into this acoustic guitar-driven ode to self-love and respecting one another. The song begins with incisive and revealing lyrics (“I’ve learned to love me as myself/ But when I’m with somebody else/ I question everything I know/ How can you say I’m beautiful?”) that only gets deeper as the song goes on. Lizzo has said that this is the first song that she wrote for the album and that it represented something she clearly needed to get off of her chest. I’m so glad she did because the song is a thing of real beauty.

“Coldplay”

If you had told me that the final track of Lizzo’s new album would successfully incorporate Coldplay’s ubiquitous pop-rock love song “Yellow,” I would have been very skeptical. Thankfully, I didn’t know about it until I heard it (although I was skeptical based on the title). A portion of “Yellow” features into the track, which also samples “Sudden Death” by Quelle Chris and Chris Keys. The jaunty melody and a string-heavy arrangement make this album-closer an utterly joyous three minutes and the lyrics return Lizzo to the thematic territory of maybe, possibly, finally being ready for love (“My defense mechanism kicks in/ Makes me run, run away from the real/ It’s easy to cut you down while I close me up/ Instead of tellin’ you how I feel/ And we waited so long, but the sex is so good/ Five years in the makin’, didn’t know if we would/ Do you say this shit to other people?/ I don’t think that I could”).

Summary

The only truly disappointing thing about Lizzo’s fourth LP is that there isn’t more of it. In the voice memo that closes the album, Lizzo mentions that she recorded “almost 170 songs” for the album and culled them down to these 12. (Wait, 158 songs were cut and “Birthday Girl” make the cut?!) Given that the album comes in at a frustratingly brief 35 minutes, I would love to have been treated to additional scraps. But the fact is that sometimes less is more. And in the case of “Special,” fans are truly left wanting more. The album is a joyous journey through multiple musical genres that are anchored by impeccable production and Lizzo’s sterling personality, clever and heartfelt writing, and rich vocals. Some may argue that the album is a trifle, but repeated listens have revealed enormous depth to me. It is a bold artistic achievement that makes it clear to me that the best is yet to come from Lizzo. And its lyrics, which delve deeply into body image, self-esteem, and mental health issues among the young and disenfranchised, represents an act of defiance masquerading as empowerment pop.

Rating for Lizzo’s “Special”: 4.5/5 stars

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Richard

Richard

Passionate cinephile. Music lover. Classic TV junkie. Awards season blogger. History buff. Avid traveler. Mental health and social justice advocate.