‘How Do We Zig When They Zag?’ Producer Ricky Reed on Making Lizzo’s New Album Sound Special

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Steve Granitz/WireImage/Getty Images and Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for Youtube

If you had to choose a single person, besides Lizzo herself, who has borne witness to her rise to stardom, it would be Ricky Reed. The pop producer began working with the rapper-singer born Melissa Jefferson since she co-signed to Atlantic Records and his imprint, Nice Life Recording Company, in 2016. From there, he helped craft her major-label debut EP, Coconut Oil, which refined her brazen sound to make hooky, throwback-influenced singles, including fan favorites “Good As Hell” and “Phone.” Since then, he’s been a driving force behind all of her hits, from “Truth Hurts” to “Juice” to last year’s “Rumors.” While Lizzo’s circle has grown exponentially, Reed has been a constant. He recently had a hand in half the tracks on her new album, Special — including lead single “About Damn Time,” which currently sits at No. 2 on the Hot 100.

Listen to early, independently released Lizzo albums like Lizzobangers and Big Grrrl, Small World, and you can hear the through line to her 2019 breakout Cuz I Love You and Special. The shifts between singing and rapping are seamless, the choruses are huge, and the message is relentlessly positive. That’s all still the case on Special, because that’s what drew Reed to Lizzo in the first place. “Always on the lookout for anybody who doesn’t do what is expected of them,” he says. “She has consistently tried to challenge the box around her since the beginning.” Reed spoke to Vulture about making Special with Lizzo, the long journey of the song “Coldplay,” and the similarities to working on Camila Cabello’s Familia.

How has it felt to have these songs that you’ve been working on come out?
Oh man, it has felt amazing. You know, we worked on the album since before COVID, right? And I have never personally poured so much love and hard work into an album in my life. For the world to get to hear some of those songs that were born out of these incredibly vulnerable, intense, private conversations, and what it has turned into here now, has been amazing.

Do you remember some of those first conversations with Lizzo around making a follow-up after her major-label debut Cuz I Love You? What was on her mind?
Before we were talking about “What’s the story? What are the lyrics?”, one of the first things she said to me was, “I want to lead the conversation regarding drums.” I was like, “Wait, explain.” She was like, “I just want the drums on a Lizzo album to be leading the conversation.” As a producer and human, that is like catnip for me. So the early stages were a lot of musical experimentation, trying different tempos, different rhythmic pockets. Starting from a place of rhythm, which is a place that she and I are both really inclined to go to. That’s kind of our collective sweet spot. The later conversations would end up becoming quite literally, “What should you be saying to the world right now?”

It’s interesting to hear you say that the album was coming together before the pandemic, because it starts off, in “The Sign,” being very direct as this post-quarantine, taking-stock-of-what-the-world-is-now song. When were you and Lizzo starting to think, Okay, this is something we’re going to incorporate and address?
It was fall/winter of 2020. That’s when we started making the songs that were like, We’re definitely not going to let the pandemic be the elephant in the room. We’re going to acknowledge that it is a collective trauma being faced by everyone. We’re going to try as much as we can to acknowledge that the last couple years have affected everybody in different ways, and try to see other people’s experiences and validate other people’s experiences as much as we can in the music. Then we’re going to do what Lizzo does and try to lift people up. But we decided with this project, like all Lizzo projects, you can’t lift anyone up without getting through the hard stuff first, and really giving yourself a minute to sit in your sadness or sit in the challenge before you move on to partying.

Was there a worry at all that everyone’s going to be talking about COVID in their new music?
Here’s what’s interesting. We really start getting into heavy songwriting and lyrical material in fall/winter of 2020, right? And this is coming off of the era when people are making their quarantine album, their songs with pandemic in the title, when it was really a buzzword that musicians were putting in songs. I mean, I made a whole album myself that was more explicitly about that moment. But with her, we knew that this is going to be a long-game thing. We knew people would probably be sick of hearing about COVID whenever this album would come out in 2021, 2022. But again, we knew that, with Lizzo especially, you can’t just pretend the hard times didn’t happen. She’d say this over and over: “I’m an artist, I have to reflect the times.” So we would always make sure, at every turn, that we were going to reflect the times. We can’t do that in the last few years without talking about what’s been going on.

What about “About Damn Time,” as the lead single, made it the entryway for listeners into the album?
I think the album is all about love. I know she wanted the takeaway of the whole project to feel like it’s loving. And for her, “About Damn Time” was a core song about love. Now, that might seem weird at first, because it’s not explicitly about being in love with a person. But the thing that she really, really, really wanted to get across was, we need a song and a message to help us collectively step out from fear. So what’s the opposite of fear? It’s love. It’s the only other option in these times. So our plan with that song was to make a record that helps people step out from fear, step out from darkness, step out from sadness, whatever form it’s taking, and find your power and find love. She thought that’s what the world needed at that exact moment. She put a lot of thought into it.

And it seems like the sound goes with that — being this big, crowd-pleasing song that gets people moving.
It’s a very upbeat — whatever you want to call it, pop, disco — record. But a lot of the music underneath it — it’s based on this towering, dense, minor jazz chord. It started as like an E-minor nine or an E-minor 11 sort of thing. I think we ended up changing the key down to E-flat minor. But we wanted to make something that was strong and empowered, and not just a pop song that was bubbly, per se. We wanted it to also be something that felt grounded and powerful and had a lot of weight.

That song also has a lot of retro influences on it. It’s recalling Diana Ross’s disco era, and it has that little reference to “I’m Coming Out.” What was the discussion around inspirations or touch points with that song?
We just wanted the mood to be like any of the great soulful diva disco records from any era. I think the best ones are both exultant and reaching for the sky. There’s this little bit of a gospel power and height and drama to them, but they all had a killer rhythm section that is rooted so deeply in the earth, that is heavy and uncompromising. We just really wanted to match that joy with that seriousness.

When you’re working on a project of this magnitude, it was the first time we had this kind of pressure and these eyeballs on us to make an album. There was a lot of conversations about what that record might sound like and a couple things I threw out into the mix that were like, Oh, this is really catchy. But what did it for “About Damn Time” was that it matched all that with being tough.

Something that “About Damn Time” introduces on this album — which was different from Cuz I Love You — is that you’re working with a lot of samples. How would those come up? Were they coming from Lizzo, or were they coming from you and the other producers?
They’re a little bit all over the place. Pop Wansel brought a great sample on “Naked.” You have Benny [Blanco] bringing in the sample of “Girls,” the Beastie Boys song, on “Grrrls.” But the one that I did that is not only my favorite song on the album, it’s my favorite song I’ve ever co-written and produced in my life, is “Coldplay.” I heard this song “Sudden Death” by the artist Quelle Chris in summer 2020, and it just became my personal “Wake up in the morning, you know it’s going to be okay” song. But when I first heard that, I was like, Man, this sounds like a hit for Lizzo. Just the piano chords. It’s the right mood. It’s the right movement, the swing of the drums. So I reached out to Quelle and the other producer Chris Keys well in advance of her even hearing it, and was like, “I’m interested in this. If this is something that you guys would be interested in working together on, let me know.” And they were awesome. Helped me put the whole thing together.

Then, have you heard the story of how she wrote that?

I haven’t heard the full story. I was going to ask you. I know she loves the song “Yellow.”
So I pulled that track together with the Quelle Chris sample and I played it for her one day. She was like, “I’m not really feeling like fully writing today, but I like the vibe of it. Let me just go in and freestyle.” Now usually for us, that means she’s going to go in and freestyle melodically, like sing some ideas. But she did something that she’s never done. I put the track on loop for about 45 minutes and she just did this, essentially, spoken-word poetry, uninterrupted. Talking about the love of her life, Mike, and this trip that they had to Tulum, and at some point halfway through it, she’s like, “And you and I were on the beach and we were singing ‘Yellow’ by Coldplay. And there was nothing to play music on, but we were dancing in silence.” I was blown away by it. But I was like, I can’t really figure out how to put together a 45-minute spoken word track.

She came back a few months later, and I transcribed her entire freestyle on my phone and then took these passages that were really powerful and helped arrange them in the form of a song. It still was no melody, just like, This word rhymes with that word, and try to put them in some order that could make sense. She went into the booth and just cut it in like two hours, and it was a wrap.

So then after all that is when you actually get the Coldplay sample on the song?
Oh yeah, I left that part out! So right before I played it for her, I was like, There’s that part about Coldplay. Hmm. I played the track and I tried singing. I was like, I think the melody actually works over these chords. I had to pitch-shift Chris Martin up four half-steps or something. But it slotted in perfectly. I’m telling you, it was about five minutes before she walked in, I got that locked into place.

My favorite song on the album is “Everybody’s Gay.” It feels really specific in the way it’s crafting this disco, sort of house-pop beat — which is slightly different for Lizzo, and for you, too. What was it like making that song?
If I’m recalling correctly, she started that song with Pop Wansel, Ian Kirkpatrick, and Theron Thomas. The lyric and melody was mostly fully cooked by the time it got to me. I was like, Wow, this is really cool. It was strangely a lot faster than it is today. I was like, “I feel like if this was a good eight or nine BPM slower, you might be able to dance to it. You could sit in the groove a little more. Vocally, you’re going to be able to have a more soulful performance that’s not going to feel rushed.” We put a human drummer on it, this guy Victor Indrizzo, who’s incredible. Let me play a live bass on it. And let’s give this thing that extra bit of human touch that is going to take it to the next level. Then I brought in my horn section. Nate Mercereau did another pass on guitar with the crazy solo in the bridge. For me, that stuff is like playing in the sandbox, because I get to come in and just dream up my dream band for this.

Were there touchpoints coming up for that song, as far as artists?
Not particularly for me. Obviously we’re dabbling with retro styles. But for that reason, it’s really important for me to clear my head and to try to say, “How do we push this forward?” Sometimes it’s really subtle things. It’s like, “Let me actually use this snare instead of a more classic-sounding snare that they would have used at this time.” Or, “We’re actually going to intentionally use a cheesy laser sound here.” To make sure that we are carving out a moment in 2022, 2023 for this song. So the conversations, those are ones where Lizzo herself is really helpful. She’ll come in and be like, “I see what you’re trying to do here, but how do we make this unexpected?” How do we zig when they zag, so to speak?

I want to take a second and ask you about the Camila Cabello album that came out earlier this year, Familia. It sounds like you’re talking about the same thing that you were doing there, in taking these traditional styles, like mariachi or salsa, and also putting a pop spin on it.
With her, it was really fun because it was boiled down, often, to a simple formula. It’s like, “Okay, we’re going to do mariachi and let’s sing in English.” “We wrote a song in a bolero [style] in Spanish. Let’s make the music like indie-pop-disco.” Trying to always have the vocal and the music be these unexpected partners. Of course, there was a few times where that experiment didn’t work, but that was our sort of M.O. for that process.

Do you feel like it stretched you?
Oh yeah. Stretched me, and also made me so happy. At this point, one of the main reasons that I will come back and do these blockbuster pop albums, and take time away from the smaller artists on my label, is that I love to be able to pull together large bands of these expensive, legendary older players. I get to hear their stories like, oh man, touring with Gloria Estefan. Even one of my main collaborators for the album, Cheche Alara, he taught me so much and has become one of my really close outside-of-work friends in the process. It’s literally my favorite thing about making albums, getting to meet new people.

Reed’s 2020 album The Room
‘How Do We Zig When They Zag?’