Lizzo Special
Photo: Courtesy of Atlantic Records

Lizzo’s New Album Isn’t Quite As ‘Special’ As She Thinks

Special is such a disappointment because you can hear the better album Lizzo is capable of making, but she insists on cranking out one-size-fits-all empowerment jams.

Special
Lizzo
Nice Life / Atlantic
15 July 2022

It’s extremely easy to be seduced by Lizzo. On the surface, she’s a punkish anomaly: she’s an unlikely star among her airbrushed contemporaries, equal parts vulgar and genuine, belting straight-up soul in the face of the whispery, moody acts she shares the charts with. Crucial to her success is her commitment to her bit; when snapping her fingers in a Z-formation to lyrics like “I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100% that bitch,” she cranks her neck in a circle and pops her leg out too. It also doesn’t hurt that Lizzo’s voice is much more acrobatic and expressive than needed to deliver lines like “I be drippin’ so much sauce, got a bitch looking like Ragu.” 

Then there’s her actual body, the shining star of her act and aesthetic, used to bait haters and shame them once trapped. Her figure – maintaining it, learning to love it, telling off people who act like they don’t want it – is the only constant across her discography. As Lizzo herself would tell you, this is also seductive. It’s sort of crazy to watch her and a team of heavy-set backup dancers stomping around the VMAs stage in front of a colossal, bethonged ass as Queen Latifah cheers back every word in the crowd. At first glance, it can all seem “Special”. 

And Special, Lizzo’s first album since 2019’s Cuz I Love You, is on a mission to prove that Lizzo – her music, message, brand – actually is. 

But in the span of a concise 35 minutes, she reveals herself as a comedian with one joke, a one-trick pony with a lot of “hay, gurl, hay”. Special has about as much to say as a Five Below T-shirt or an Urban Outfitters wall decal. It is the SHEIN of music, paper-thin polyester with all the markings of something well-constructed. It might be fun for a night out, but it’s hard to imagine it’ll survive the years to come.

Special‘s primary trick is producing as much kinetic energy as possible with busy, hyped-up arrangements that are the perfect playground for Lizzo’s vocals. On every texture, she sells it hard. From soulful organ playing to slap-bass funk to heady 1980s synthscapes, she rides the production with impressive command. She sounds right in every setting but familiar. Lizzo gives no fucks; she’s a party starter, vaguely horny, and wants to know where her girls are. Even at her most emotional, she’s pumping recycled emotion. “Naked” is a by-the-numbers Bruno Mars ballad, and “Special” channels Lauryn Hill sonically just to croon lyrics that Lauryn wouldn’t sneeze on. (“In case nobody told you today– you’re special… Broken but damn, you’re still perfect.”) 

Still, it’s tempting to give in. Resist “Uptown Funk” as you might, but you still know the words. It probably won’t destroy your buzz. Special boasts similar successes on sheer willpower. “2 Be Loved (Am I Ready)” struts with extreme confidence, catchy, sassy, and fun before giving way to a chorus that would be the perfect endcap to The Secret Life of Pets 3. It’s music for the masses; it’s a Brady Bunch episode. Self-doubt, self-hatred, and uncertainty are mentioned for about five seconds before a party is thrown to celebrate you resolving them. Because you’re perfect, baby.  Lead single “About Damn Time” and opener “The Sign” operate on similar premises. “Grrrls” flips the iconic Beastie Boys “Girls” beat into a bass-heavy girl power kissoff that is weak but will probably make you bob your head around anyway.

That’s not to say that Lizzo should need to dig deep and be anything other than a pop star. It’s just that this – this minivan mom music – is such a waste of her weird vocal effect, infectious swagger, and occasionally cool references. Special is such a disappointment because you can hear the better album she’s capable of – but she insists on digging her heels in to crank out one-size-fits-all empowerment jams that can’t be resonating with anyone beyond someone just getting back to the elliptical for the first time in a year. Cuz I Love You already covered the ground of being perfect. Why can’t we see Lizzo get ugly?

It can sometimes feel like Lizzo’s generic “sassiness” is a crutch, a way to cash in on a particular girl boss moment without having to do too much work and stay in her comfort zone as an artist. “Hold my bag, bitch”, “Let me fix my wig”, “Where my girls at”, “Purr, bitch”; every time Lizzo broaches on something that might sound human, it’s immediately undercut by a Yas-queen-ism. It’s certainly possible that Lizzo doesn’t have anything more profound to offer. The closer “Coldplay” sure makes a case for that (“It made me sad, I cried / Singing Coldplay in the night”). But if she does, it’s beyond damn time to bring that side out– otherwise, what is she left with? Being the slightly less annoying Meghan Trainor?

But if this is genuinely the farthest reach of what Lizzo is capable of as an artist, Special is probably the absolute best this sort of music can be. It’s music that drops F-bombs but still feels appropriate for an eight-year-old. It’s music that claims “Everybody’s Gay”, but whose most sexual reference involves merely having an ass. It’s music about telling yourself you’re perfect even when you feel like shit. Someone has to make this kind of vapid, anesthetized shopping mall music, but it’s a shame that it has to be someone clearly capable of more. 

RATING 4 / 10
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