Lizzo is feeling herself. After kicking around Minneapolis’s indie-rap scene for most of the last decade, the 30-year-old now exists on the level of fame where people will recommend her to you on the presumption you might not know who she is, but you do, because someone else has told you about her before. She’s perilously close to becoming a mainstream star, and Cuz I Love You is clearly meant to make as big an impression as possible. Given the breadth of what she’s done before, especially the military-grade, Missy Elliott-informed dance-rap tracks on her 2014 debut Lizzobangers, Cuz I Love You comes off as chart debut as a genre piece. She can make an album like this because she can, and she is at great pains to show us she can do everything else pretty damn well too.
It’s easy to see why people love Lizzo within the first ten seconds or so of Cuz I Love You. The album begins with her belting—absolutely belting; this isn’t some timid R&B-starlet melisma—the album’s title. Then she’s met by big, blown-out Dave Fridmannesque guitars that no doubt sounded great over Coachella-sized speakers this year. Soon she’s abstracted her words into a wrenching simulation of a crying baby, and when the song finally peters out, it’s hard to imagine she hasn’t twisted herself into a ball of twitching limbs like that girl in Suspiria. But nope—she gets up and sings the next song with gusto.
Lizzo has elected to become undeniable not through great songs, a winning persona, or savvy market strategies but by putting herself out as a talent. She’s a singer-rapper, which isn’t as impressive now as it was back when Drake broke out, but she’s the kind of singer who isn’t happy unless mouths are agape at the sheer amount of power coursing through her lungs. And though Lizzo’s bars are only about as clever as she thinks they are half the time, she’s clearly proud of them, doing that irritating fake-laugh thing as she finishes a line she really wants to land. She can also play the flute while twerking.
Her hard work—her singing voice came out of months of preparation with producer Ricky Reed—is the easy selling point for Lizzo and, apparently, her insulation against criticism. Presumably responding to a lukewarm Pitchfork review, the singer tweeted critics who don’t make music should be unemployed (hey, many of us are!) and invited them to spend time in the studio with her to see how hard she works (I, for the record, am a musician and am thus qualified to comment on Lizzo’s record). Putting a lot of work into something to tepid response is disappointing for anyone, though perhaps beating Beyoncé on the charts is something of a consolation. But there are times on Cuz I Love You where how great she thinks she and feels like the endgame.
After picking herself up off the floor from “Cuz I Love You”, Lizzo doesn’t waste any time making her intentions clear: “Woke up feelin’ like I might run for president,” she crows on “Like a Girl”. “Heard you say I’m not the baddest bitch, you lyin’,” she cackles (literally) on “Juice”. If that’s not clear, the next song is literally about how she’s her own soulmate. At that point, when she swoops in on “Jerome” by guffawing “here we go again!” it’s as if she’s taken it as a given at that point she’s going to wow us. There are a lot of studio-goof affectations, like a faux-flubbed ending on “Like a Girl”. She wants it both ways: to present herself as the peak of human talent and as the goofy girl next door.
Yes, the album is impressive. But without much depth beyond its own self-absorption, it doesn’t come on as strong as it thinks it does. The most poignant moments come when Lizzo, one of the few fat black women to crack the charts this millennium, makes explicit the defiance behind her self-love. “If you fight like a girl, cry like a girl / Do your thing, run the whole damn world,” she cheerleads on “Like a Girl”. It’s not the deepest sentiment, but if you’ve ever had femininity used as a negative against you, like just about anybody of any gender, it feels good. And one of the funniest lines on the record is on “Tempo”, when she looks at a dude and tells him he ought to put on a little weight.
Cuz I Love You tries its damndest to come on strong. Albums like this typically don’t reward much repeat listening, but Lizzo is a wry enough lyricist that little details you didn’t catch the first time shine through later on. The album’s best flex is, in fact, its subtlest. Immediately after she sings “all my feelings Gucci” on “Exactly How I Feel”, we hear the real-life voice of Gucci Mane blare from a distant corner of the stereo field: “IT’S GUCCI!” Then Lizzo laughs triumphantly, ecstatic at her ability to summon up the most influential rapper of the decade just by saying the word. She’s overjoyed to be a pop star. But she’ll need to be more than that before she can run the whole damn world.