Lizzos Special Is Even Bigger and Fizzier Fun Than We Imagined: Album Review
“Come on. I’m very good at music, man,” Lizzo declared in an interview with Zane Lowe this week, as if this were an unstated or under-stated thing that needed to be said out loud.
You know, she’s not a liar.
So let’s just say that Beyonce has her work cut out for her. Not that this month ain’t big enough for both of the household mononyms that want to come at us with new music, but the line on Bey’s forthcoming record is that it might mark a return to dance vibes and good times. And now, in her own great tradition of being extra, Lizzo has come out with an album that feels like it provides all the clubby, poppy endorphins a populace could really require for a single summer. Please, by all means, bring on the second course in a couple of weeks… but anyone who bites into “Special” is going to feel already pretty well-sated with fun.
This is the album where Lizzo really comes out as bi-… as in bi-pop/R&B, or bi-soul-and-bubblegum. It’s nearly downright bi-national, in a sense, with Swedish mastermind Max Martin and a few of his friends coming in to help great American record-makers like Ricky Reed. Throw in one short but potent track that has Londoner Mark Ronson as her collaborator and you’ve got an international rogues’ gallery of producers who are nearly superstars in their own right — all of whom prove smart at doing what they do best without ever looking to nudge the singer an inch from center spotlight. Nearly the entire album exists in a sweet nexus where the star sounds every bit as conversational and quotable as the waiting world has wanted and needed her to be, but where broad musical hooks also play as big a part in the picture as sheer personality.
In other words, it won’t hurt if you spent the half-year glued to her “Watch Out for the Big Grrrls” show, but you’ll also be fine if you missed the whole last four years of Lizzo-love because the time machine dropped you off directly from Studio 54.
What’s missing from “Special,” and not to its detriment: truth hurting. Ow-ees of any sort are practically non-existent in this altogether ebullient collection, although the memory of them is regularly invoked. It’s funny to hear the star saying she once came close to starting the album with “a sad song about love and loss” because not only is such a song not on the starting block, whatever that was didn’t make the cut at all. It takes till the ninth number on a 12-track album to even get a slow song… and that slow song is “Naked.” We probably don’t have to tell you that Lizzo is not about to get melancholy about nudity. In several of the tracks, she does go so far as to question whether the world or a lover will embrace her body image as much as she has — but she doesn’t question it for long. “I’ve seen every part of me and, babe, I can’t erase it,” she sings, in a falsetto that’s usually sweet and pretty by her brasher vocal standards. “If I get on top of you, you promise to embrace it?”
And there’s your closest thing to a slow, sad song, which is not very close at all. For just about all the remaining tracks, she’s straining a confessional cheerfulness into different kinds of dance-oriented tracks, many of them recalling more organic distant eras of R&B, a few more in the compressed here-and-now. The neo-disco force is strong, as anyone coming into the album from the lead single “About Damn Time” will have already sussed. “Everybody’s Gay” may put you in mind of how successfully Dua Lipa has mined that field even before you look at the credits and see that Ian Kirkpatrick, one of the ”Don’t Start Now” creators, joins Reed and Pop Wansel as a writer-producer. With that title and that feel, maybe needless to say, this a track that is going to be trotted out on every dance floor outside the deep South from here til the end of time or end of marriage equality, whichever comes last.
If 21st century disco is a prevalent feel through a few choice numbers, though, you can well expect that Ronson will bring something on his contribution, “Break Up Twice,” which arrives as the subtle mashup of girl-group pop and soul an Amy Winehouse fan might have hoped to hear a reprise of. You can even hear a slight echo of Winehouse’s stand-by-your-man ethos in Lizzo’s lyrics (“When you came to my barbecue, they all gave you attitude / Well, shoot, every reason they mad at you is true”), although the vibe is less tortured and far more promising (“It would be a shame not to see this through / Who gon’ put up with your Gemini shit like I do?”).
But this is all getting ahead of ourselves, as the album starts off with “The Sign,” a proper introduction to a record — and an outsize persona — if ever there was one: “Hi, motherfucker, did you miss me? / I’ve been home since 2020 / I’ve been twerkin’ and makin’ smoothies / It’s called healing.” There is a big part of Lizzo’s charisma in four lines: part Cardi B-style cuss-master, part Oprah-ready self-help guru, part sex goddess, part the master of the hilariously mundane detail.
But we can’t stress enough how none of this is belabored, and how she doesn’t pause for applause any time she tosses off one of the three dozen or so funny aphorisms that are already getting their own tweetstorms. On “Special,” Lizzo is establishing that she really prefers things small and compact… in matters of her current music, if nowhere else. The 12-song album runs a brisk minutes, with one song as short as 2:01 and the longest maxing out at an epic 3:36. The blink-and-you’ll-almost-miss-it quality applies to the often furious pace of the poppiest Swede-aphilic numbers as well as pace of her lyrical Bartlett’s candidates.
Even “2 Be Loved (Am I Ready),” the most maximal of the Max tracks, which has an old-fashoned Big Key Change going into the last chorus, doesn’t longer a second longer than necessary after that updraft. Lizzo doesn’t like being laden down with cumbersome song lengths any more than she does with, you know, clothes.
There’s a certain hall-of-mirrors quality to how we relate to Lizzo at this point: We’re affirming of her being so self-affirming, and now it feels like she’s affirming our affirmation. The risk of that is that it all ends in solipsism and vaster degrees of heroine worship, but one of the warming things about “Special” is how, even as self-focused as it is, there’s a good share of implicit and explicit empathy (which you may have already felt in her Amazon show) that makes the whole thing feel like a “We Will Survive” blast of possibly life-saving, or at least day-saving, medicine. You definitely get that with “I Love You, Bitch,” which may be taken as some kind of lesbian anthem — and no one’s loss if it is — if you haven’t been paying attention to how universal a term of endearment “bitch” has become in her approximately 10,000 uses of the term on the album.
Another friendship song, “Birthday Girl” — a track in which the Monsters & Strangerz production team goes a little more modern with the electronic beat — may supplant the Beatles’ “Birthday” as the most played gift-opening soundtrack of the coming era. (Look out, Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill; she may be gunning for you, too.)
Is this the ultimate Lizzo album, with no wrenching ballads or bathos tucked in to make it an emotional tour de force as well as a blast? With just a handful of listens under the belt, it’s hard to guess how many of these songs might endure through the years, beyond the immediate mood lift they offer on day one. Will “Special” take us to December and beyond… and, more specifically, to Grammy season? Listen, it’s hard to imagine this isn’t immediately locked in as one of the leading album of the year candidates. On another day, maybe we’ll think that the lack of ballad showcases keeps this from being the career peak-to-date it feels like in the moment. Whether in years to follow the record will hold up as Ms. Right may be anyone’s guess, but it is definitely Ms. Right Now.
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