After conquering the world in a whirlwind of twerk and flute, singer and rapper Lizzo took three years to craft the sequel to her hit 2019 album, Because I love you. During that time, she wrote nearly 170 tracks and whittled them down to 12 songs: an exhaustive process, with sacred purpose. “I felt like it was not just what I needed to hear,” she explains in a voicemail on the Apple Music version of the new album, Special“but you needed to hear, and the whole world needs to hear.
“Need” may seem like too heavy a justification for the party music that contains the phrase nudes of fire. Do we ever really need more pop songs? Bold claims of significance usually come from famous artists who, it is suspected, are mostly interested in being even more revered. People like Madonna and Kanye West, for example, act as if they are personally integral to the cause of world peace. Still, Lizzo’s claims of importance are pretty believable. We never had a star like her, and the catchy, common Special should only deepen its influence.
Some of that influence is just in terms of the music. Hip-hop has always intertwined with pop, but a big story of the last decade has been the dissolution of all boundaries between singing and speaking in rhyme. In a fun way, and thanks in part to Lizzo, it turned pop into musical theatre. On radio and on TikTok today, the songs that thrive are both conversational and anthemic, harmonically simple yet informative. Lizzo knows how to mix these ingredients for the widest possible consumption. She loves a high, screaming chorus and a precise drumbeat. She also knows that jokes, callbacks, digressions, micro-inflections, onomatopoeias and WTFs make songs addictive for modern audiences.
On Special, it doubles the entertainment for everyone. The instrumentation aims for the kind of dutiful retro funk and disco that never seems to go out of style. Production and writing credits feature revered hitmakers including Max Martin, Ricky Reed, Omer Fedi and Benny Blanco. While previous Lizzo song lists have included awkward or overworked moments, the songs on Special a rapid passage, impressing words and melodies on the listener by subliminal magic. On the remarkable “2 Be Loved (Am I Ready),” jazzy keyboards and gospel exclamations are syncopated with explosive panache. Impressively serious, the song should earn the same smiles and sweat as a Richard Simmons workout.
Luckily, Lizzo didn’t test her personality in search of more success. Beneath its silky ’70s arrangement, hit single “About Damn Time” pulls off the same trick as a Donkey episode, elevating nonsense to art. “I’m not the girl I was or used to be,” she sings – a hilariously redundant line, delivered in such a languid tone your heart might ache twice. The album’s final song, “Coldplay,” interpolates the band from its title but ends up being one of the most original songs in Lizzo’s catalog. Telling a story from her past, she summons a late-night beachside vibe to convey the bittersweet way our happiest memories resonate into our future.
This track, like all tracks on Special, is a love song, but for Lizzo, a love song is another form of message song. She approaches making music much like writing an essay, with theses supported by colorful examples and compelling arguments. On “Break Up Twice,” a delicate, neo-soul ballad, Lizzo converts a personal tale into universally applicable advice: “True love takes time.” Other tracks contribute to his famous campaigns against body shaming, sexism and racism. When netizens get mad at her, she asks on “Special,” “Is it just because I’m black and heavy?” Didacticism can sometimes cringe, but in general Special manages to prioritize the song over the slogan.
Plus, Lizzo has reason to preach: By shattering the image of who not only becomes a famous performer but also sexy and confident, she truly represents an evolution for popular culture. His work celebrates his success and his confidence not only as a personal victory, but as a victory for nothing less than humanity. The question she faces at this point is one every rising, slightly messianic pop idol has to answer: how can she continue to tout her fabulousness without losing the relativity that made people love her? in the first place ?
Special offers a fairly effective answer to this question. Many songs exploit relationship insecurities to show the kind of vulnerability that has sustained the likes of Beyoncé and Taylor Swift: “I accept the things I can’t change about you / But I can’t accept the fact that I can’t change myself too,” she confesses in “If You Love Me.” Even more refreshingly, Lizzo often emphasizes the we rather than me. “Grrrls” and “Birthday Girl” shower her friend group — and by implication, her fan community — with gallons of affection. The title track’s chorus emulates a crisis hotline by addressing the listener directly: “You’re special, I’m so glad you’re still with us.”
The album’s most moving moment occurs on the opener, “The Sign,” an optimistic tale of getting back on our feet after relationship setbacks and self-doubt. Lizzo marvels that she”[keeps] writing these songs” and “my daughters keep singing” – then adds, in the last line of the song, almost launched, “I guess I’m not alone.” The thought of the artist and the audience forming a support system is charming and pleads for the need of artists who constantly work for the spotlight.