In the three years since “Truth Hurts” blew up on TikTok and “Good as Hell” crept into raunchy ensemble comedies, RuPaul’s Drag Race lip syncs, and commercials for Grubhub and Garnier, the Grammy-winning Minneapolis performer Lizzo has had a tumultuous ride in the public consciousness, garnering respect for nuclear-grade feel-good anthems like “Juice” while contending with people’s nebulous standards for what she should sing, how she should dress, and even how much she should weigh. She’s also been accused of pandering to white audiences with motivational pop songs and criticized for revealing outfits like the see-through dress she wore to Cardi B’s birthday party last October or the cutout number she sported at a 2019 Lakers game. Occasionally, the backlash is hard-earned, like that time she went after critics following the release of her 2019 breakthrough album Cuz I Love You — a perplexing play, since the reviews were mostly glowing — or when she publicly shamed a Postmates worker who later sued, complaining of threats received after the star shared her delivery person’s name and picture on Twitter.
But sometimes it feels like people are deliberately looking for shit to nitpick, holding Lizzo to a standard that feels unapproachable by design. The stuff about wooing white audiences is ridiculous, since Black artists have been a presence in pop as long as the distinction existed. Dionne Warwick sang Burt Bacharach and Hal David songs. Whitney Houston faced criticism from R&B fans who felt her 1985 self-titled debut was geared more toward pop charts than soul and gospel traditions. Beyoncé danced across genre lines on 2008’s I Am … Sasha Fierce, plucking heartstrings on the wholesome “Halo” while melting dance floors with the brash “Diva.” Questioning the Blackness in Lizzo’s music is a wasteful endeavor you can disabuse yourself of in five minutes by watching the singer blow through Cuz I Love You’s title track at the top of her 2019 NPR Tiny Desk Concert, where the song’s gospel and blues underpinnings are laid bare in a powerhouse vocal performance. Yes, a song like “Juice” carries the notable whiff of a Maroon 5 chart-topper, but Cuz I Love You also feels like a direct descendant of the risqué stand-up of LaWanda Page and the sex-positive raps of Lil’ Kim and Missy Elliott.
Lizzo responds to her backlash with frankness and advocacy. She’s honest about how body-shaming eats away at a woman’s self-esteem, and her art and business endeavors revolve around counteracting this negativity. Her shapewear line Yitty covers a vast range of sizes (when too many fashion brands service a narrower portion of the public). Her Emmy-nominated Amazon Original reality series Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls is, by turns, your textbook televised competition for a spot in a famous artist’s live show and a series of painful discussions about the adversity the titular girls face. Lizzo’s fourth album, Special, is an extension of her mission to make everyone feel accepted and challenge retrograde notions about the way a woman ought to carry herself in the public eye. It details the performer’s journey to feeling comfortable in her body as she falls for someone new, and it loves on the listener going through the same in a series of bubbly pep talks like “2 Be Loved (Am I Ready),” a nervous inner dialogue about giving your hang-ups a night off because someone cute is calling. Special is also a careful balancing act, a second serving of the sound that powered the hits that made Lizzo a household name and a probing exploration of mainstream pop tropes that have cropped up since the last album. That means less space for contemporary R&B and rap moments like “Scuse Me” from 2016’s Coconut Oil EP or “Bus Passes and Happy Meals” off the star’s 2013 debut album Lizzobangers, and more room for Max Martin bops and ’80s-pop simulacra. Special is fun but safe, more unified in its sound and theme than the last album but also devoid of any major surprises.
The title track is the finest rendering of the new album’s aesthetic interests and core message. Lizzo cuts to the quick over a bath of gorgeous strings and horns and the kind of beat that normally blesses a reflective Chance the Rapper single or a Drake rap workout: “How could you throw fuckin’ stones if you ain’t been through her pain? / That’s why we feel so alone, that’s why we feel so much shame.” (Performing this one on Saturday Night Live in April, Lizzo delivered the lines like a shout that escaped from the depths of her being.) The chorus — “In case nobody told you today / You’re special” — understands what people want in a Lizzo record: emboldening words, affirmations that feel lived-in, and soulful sonics that feel right in a bar or a supermarket or a Netflix romance or a daytime-TV spot for heart medication. We do sometimes need someone in our ears reminding us that in spite of how bad we may feel, it’s good we’re alive. Special feels fine-tuned for this utility. Each song is a line drive toward mass appeal. Lyrics can be almost simplistically direct, the better to sell the feeling clearer. This makes “Special” ache, but others get hamstrung by lines that don’t land, like the one in “Grrrls” that netted complaints of ableism or the one that rhymes “CEO” with “C-E-Hoe” or the key-fob bars in “The Sign” (“Don’t need that energy, bitch, I’m a Tesla / Hey, hey, F-O-B on the dresser”). Sacrificing a bit of complexity for conversational relatability allows for the smoldering rage in the “do right” anthem “Break Up Twice” — “It would be a shame not to see this through / Who gon’ put up with your Gemini shit like I do?” — but also terrycloth-soft adult-contemporary moments like “I Love You Bitch,” a flip of a Z-Ro classic that bears a closer resemblance to U2, and “If You Love Me,” a word about unconditional acceptance that also feels like a hard sell for another Garnier television spot. Special seems invested in uplifting everyone in earshot but also anxious to secure its slice of the pop-radio market share.
These songs lean into the same kind of musical slipperiness as the latest from Adele, Harry Styles, Lorde, and the Weeknd. They’re massaging nostalgic sounds into contemporary pop songs, curating noteworthy taste through juxtaposition. Lizzo can hang at the ’80s revival party because her chops are tremendous. The chipper “Everybody’s Gay” expertly mimics the brassy funk of Rick James’s Street Songs while the singer tap-dances around the horror theme of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” “Grrrls” flips the Beastie Boys’ “Girls” on its head, coming out with a bubbly empowerment anthem. The pieces of older hits that stick out in these productions sound luxurious, but they also feel a little obvious. A sliver of Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” in “Break Up Twice” brings a pretty melody to a predictable payoff, and “Coldplay” cleverly sprinkles Chris Martin’s “Yellow” into a soul song. Like her television appearances, where Lizzo’s eager to hip you to her many interdisciplinary gifts as she raps and sings and twerks and plays the flute, Special is spotlighting her versatility (and that of maestros like Max Martin, Ricky Reed, Pop Wansel, and Ian Kirkpatrick) as it cycles through the Dungeon Family funk-pop of “The Sign,” the sleek disco of “About Damn Time,” the old-school rap tribute in “Grrrls,” the strong Prince energy around “2 Be Loved (Am I Ready),” and the maudlin New Wave of “I Love You Bitch.” But the back half, where the album settles into a steady groove and fires one funk-soul bomb after another, is smoother. “Naked” hits the same highs as “Cuz I Love You,” spicing up an impassioned vocal performance with loud blasts of horns, and “Everybody’s Gay” crushes in part due to a scene-stealing performance by guitarist Nate Mercereau, who also shredded on the Cuz I Love You highlight “Crybaby.”
Special is a blast but never as fearless as “Crybaby” or “Better in Color” or “Heaven Help Me,” songs where Lizzo steamrolled intricate, anachronistic productions, juggling rap and cabaret vocals or rapping over gospel choirs and alt-dance sonics. She’s hedging her bets, toning things down. It feels like Special has an eye on the long-term stability of the artist and the nurturing of a fandom, and that’s smart business after a hard-won career breakthrough and a wave of backlash. Special hits its marks as Lizzo’s talent overpowers a peppering of moments of cringe. But it could’ve taken wilder swings.