Baltimore Sun

Lizzo’s pop stuck in same groove

- By Lindsay Zoladz

Since her breakout hit “Truth Hurts” dominated the Hot 100 in 2019, the music of Houston-raised singer, rapper, songwriter and flutist Lizzo has been a pop cultural omnipresen­ce — a glossy sonic lacquer ready to provide any humdrum moment with a hater-repellent sheen.

That signature spirit of uplift is all over “Special,” Lizzo’s fourth album, and the follow-up to her 2019 major-label debut, “Cuz I Love You.” “In case nobody told you today, you’re special,” Lizzo sings on the title track, briefly abdicating her role as the rap game’s Mae West to become a millennial Mister Rogers. Later, on the bouncy, brassy “Birthday Girl,” she asks, “Is it your birthday, girl? ’Cause you looking like a present.”

As a self-described “big grrrl” preaching unapologet­ic sex positivity and self-love, Lizzo, 34, is a refreshing­ly radical personalit­y, on red carpets and on social media, where she is candid and outspoken. But the cultural ubiquity of her recent music emphasizes its general agreeabili­ty and attests to its political limitation­s: Now many Lizzo songs have come to signify the treat-yourself mood major corporatio­ns wish to capture when they want you to buy something.

In the past few years, Lizzo’s music has appeared in advertisem­ents for several competing technology companies, alcoholic beverages and a food-delivery app, among others.

In 2022, there is no such thing as selling out, but artists run the risk of diluting their message. Perhaps it is unsurprisi­ng, then, that on “Special,” Lizzo often sounds caught between the personal and the personal brand. Occasional­ly, on

songs that chronicle her less-than-ecstatic feelings, she gestures toward complexiti­es that challenge the one-dimensiona­l image of her as the high priestess of the mirror pep talk — only to retreat back to the anodyne comfort zone of songs like “Special” and “Birthday Girl.”

Like her irresistib­ly fun 2019 single “Juice,” many of Lizzo’s best songs cruise in the same lane that Bruno Mars skillfully dominates: uncannily reproduced ’70s-funk and ’80s-pop simulacra, updated for the present moment with slangy, winking vocals. Her current hit, the disco-lite summer jam “About Damn Time” (produced by her “Truth Hurts” collaborat­or Ricky Reed and Blake Slatkin) is a bit Lizzo-bynumbers: a showy flute solo, relentless­ly vampy delivery, lyrics that could double as Instagram captions. But the bass line’s gummy groove holds all the disparate parts together, allowing Lizzo to glide elegantly from arch, semi-rapped verses to a belted-out bridge that shows off the full range of her vocals. When it works, it works.

And when it doesn’t, well ... you get a song like overzealou­s-ally anthem “Everybody’s Gay,” which aims for Paradise Garage euphoria but lands closer to Target’s collection of Pride month apparel. The energy of the opening track, “The Sign,” somehow manages to be both relentless and listless. The best thing about the abrasive, Beastie Boys-sampling “Grrrls” is that it is the shortest song on the album.

“Grrrls” is one of several tracks on “Special” centered on an interpolat­ion of another older and more famous song, which, repeated often on a relatively short pop album, starts to feel less like homage and more like an overrelian­ce on other people’s hooks. “Coldplay” features a sped-up and ill-fitting sample of “Yellow,” which Lizzo later shouts out as her go-to soundtrack for nursing a broken heart.

“Coldplay,” the album’s final track, concludes the loose thematic arc of “Special,” which finds Lizzo wondering if all this work on her self-confidence has made it more difficult to let her guard down and allow herself to be swept away by romantic love. “I’ve learned to love me as myself,” she sings on the searching ballad “If You Love Me,” “But when I’m with somebody else/ I question everything I know.” On the energetic “2 B Loved (Am I Ready),” the antic butterflie­s of a new romance make Lizzo question her hard-won identity as an independen­t single woman.

What happens when the woman who proclaimed she would “put the sing in single” finds herself in a monogamous relationsh­ip? Or when the queen of empowermen­t pop wakes up feeling something less than good as hell? In its more tantalizin­g moments, “Special” articulate­s these questions but falls short of committing to an answer. On her major-label albums, Lizzo has yet to risk traveling to a depth from which she cannot immediatel­y pull herself up, with triumphant fanfare, on the very next song.

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Lizzo (Nice Life Recording Company/Atlantic)
‘Special’ Lizzo (Nice Life Recording Company/Atlantic)

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