It truly doesn’t feel like we’ve been waiting nearly 3 and a half years in between Lizzo projects. Ever since breaking through to the mainstream after the public finally discovered her catalogue of charming, meme-able and empowering pop-rap chaos, she’s been a nearly omnipresent cultural force. Breaking through to acting, appearing on scores of reality programs while crafting her own Emmy-nominated answer and booking a couple gigs on SNL, everyone has wanted a piece of her big personality and her boundless positivity. With Special coming after scoring yet another TikTok smash hit, the former Prince protégé shifts her focus slightly from classic soul to more funk and disco-inspired tunes, but the genesis is mostly the same: Lizzo spends most of the project utilizing her vocal power for in-your-face self-love anthems littered with caption-ready quotables and earworms from a full team of some of the most accomplished producers in the business, all working at the top of their game. While there’s been a contingent of critics online arguing that Lizzo failed to evolve, does it really matter when she’s this good at what she does?
If there’s a moment where listeners might feel justified in feeling overwhelmed by Lizzo’s mountain of cheese, it’s on the opener “The Sign.” That’s also precisely why it functions as a great intro to what’s to come. Dropping in with a belted “Hiiiiii, motherf**ka” over a skittering breakbeat, it becomes a lot to take in by the time she starts dropping a couple clichéd phrases and dead memes over a guitar solo bubbling up in the back, but the chorus still shows off her vocal heights. It’s everything Lizzo is about turned up to 11, and her “get used to me” attitude persists throughout, albeit in slightly more manageable and musically engaging form. The singles “About Damn Time” and “Grrrls” follow, and while “Grrrls” initially felt like a minor single barely breaking 2 minutes, the track’s unhinged energy and bouncy Beastie Boys sample serves as a fantastic and fun-loving contrast to the sleek and smooth funk-pop smash hit that precedes it, one of Lizzo’s more uncharacteristically reserved singles. “About Damn Time” still stands up here as a perfect post-COVID going-out anthem that acknowledges the bad and looks forward to the good, while the gang vocals of “Grrrls” complement an incredible lyrical use of the term “C-E-hoe.”
The run of tracks that follows is some of Lizzo’s career-best work, as pop’s biggest force behind the boards in Max Martin, Omer Fedi of “Mood” and “Stay” fame and the team behind a couple tracks on Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia take a track each. “2 Be Loved (Am I Ready)” finds the legendary Martin in fine form with a track that sounds like the bright, bubbly synths and seismic key change of 80s Whitney Houston combined with the soulful call-and-response and romantic deliberations of “I Won’t Say I’m In Love” from Disney’s Hercules. With huge harmonies and a driving bridge that easily puts her on the level of some of the best vocalists working today, the track finds Lizzo in new lyrical territory as she doubts her self-love for the first time, the famously single singer newly smitten and unsure if commitment is the right answer before she fully embraces herself. “I Love You Bitch” is quintessential Lizzo fun, kicking off with a single, plodding piano key that makes it seem like it’s going to be one of the most serious and straight-up soulful tracks here before she begins belting the track’s title repeatedly in the chorus to hilarious effect. Hearing the breathy backing chorus of guys sing it in response is even better. The title track concludes the album’s first half with a shuffling 90s pop-R&B sound and some more contemplative lyrics about her long journey to acceptance, building up to a triumphant, horn section-backed chorus. Lizzo sounds so passionate about her cause here that you can picture the tearful smile on her face, and the uplifting message highlighting the value of every listener made this one legitimately emotional.
The track “Break Up Twice” recruits another icon in Mark Ronson, who assists with a heavy sample of the oft-sampled “Doo Wop (That Thing).” The repeated homages to the track are getting slightly tiresome, but it’s obviously a timeless classic and Lizzo certainly does it here with her strong vocals and the fun attitude she brings to a novel song concept. Lizzo tells a story about giving a relationship that failed so spectacularly that her friends know every indiscretion another chance, but with the caveat that he’d better run for the hills if the indiscretions continue. Titling a track “Everybody’s Gay” is incredible simply for the provocation of some of Earth’s most backwards individuals it’s sure to stir up, and even if it’s not one of the stronger melodies, the complexity and big-bang sound of the instrumental and a clever lyrical flip on the original meaning of “gay” making it possible to interpret the song as innocuously as you please simply make me glad it exists. Things get real on “Naked” with a waltz tempo and Lizzo initially holding back her vocals to build up to electrifying powerhouse moments. It’s the biggest focus on body positivity here, as Lizzo celebrates a loving relationship where the harmful comments that have been lobbed at her become a non-factor.
The album’s last quarter gives us one more track each in the vein of all of the best sides of Lizzo’s work. “Birthday” leaves us off with one more catchy party anthem that stands out simply because of how adorably happy she sounds on the track, as well as giving us what might be the definitive Lizzo motto: “When you been through the most, you gotta do the most.” “If You Love Me” is an emotional pop-soul putting a final stamp on her messages of self-acceptance over some acoustic chords, while “Coldplay” closes things out with a full embrace of the lovey-dovey moments she’d been tiptoeing carefully around for the rest of the album. Sampling the lovebirds’ “song,” it’s an unexpectedly jazzy closer.
By its conclusion, Special does indeed feel like a more varied, emotional, and like a bigger statement of purpose than Cuz I Love You – even if some label-backed songwriting sessions might have ever so slightly sapped some of the ridiculous energy that made a track like “Truth Hurts” such a culture force. Truthfully, Lizzo could keep making tracks like this forever and I’d be pretty happy.
Favourite Tracks: 2 Be Loved (Am I Ready), I Love You Bitch, About Damn Time, Special, Naked
Least Favourite Track: The Sign