Lizzo’s pop stardom has relied only partially on pop hits.
Sure, it was an old-fashioned Top 40 radio smash — “Truth Hurts,” which originally came out in 2017 before finding its way to TikTok and a Netflix rom-com — that introduced the ebullient singer and rapper (and flute player) to a mass audience three years ago.
Since then, though, Lizzo’s continued success has had less to do with big singles than with the funny, feel-good empowerment vibes she dispenses on social media and in her Prime Video reality series, “Watch Out for the Big Grrrls,” which just picked up six Emmy nominations to go with the three Grammys she won in 2020.
Like Cardi B, with whom she teamed last year for the delightful if curiously low-impact “Rumors,” Lizzo, 34, is more than anything an excellent hang: precisely the type of outsize personality you want to encounter on “Saturday Night Live” or “The Breakfast Club” or in a TikTok about the killer new vegan spot she just discovered.
Hits help extend her reach, of course, but they don’t feel like the real driver of her career. The real driver is Lizzo herself.
So it’s something of a pleasant surprise to discover that for “Special,” the long-awaited follow-up to her 2019 major-label debut, “Cuz I Love You,” Lizzo buckled down and made a bunch of tight pop bangers — and did it without sanding down the edges of her funky, freewheeling charisma.
With a dozen tracks in just more than 35 minutes, “Special” moves fast, with a kind of heat-seeking propulsion you didn’t get from the much looser “Cuz I Love You,” where the hooks and grooves could meander even when Lizzo knew where she was going. (Her studio collaborators this time include Ricky Reed, with whom she’s worked for years, along with new-recruit heavyweights like Max Martin, Benny Blanco, Mark Ronson and Ian Kirkpatrick.)
Emotionally, Lizzo remains a sturdy source of uplift: In “If You Love Me” and “2 Be Loved (Am I Ready),” she’s reminding herself that she’s worthy of tenderness and devotion, while “Birthday Girl” and the title track offer reassurance to anyone brought low by the pandemic, an unfeeling partner or a crappy job.
“I’ve been so down and under pressure / I’m way too fine to be this stressed,” she sings in the extremely Chic-ish “About Damn Time,” which has been bouncing around the upper reaches of Billboard’s Hot 100 for weeks. Along with Beyoncé’s indefatigable “Break My Soul,” the disco-funk jam is a sign that pop music is shaking off the gloom of the COVID-19 era, stubborn subvariants be damned; indeed, Lizzo often refers fleetingly to having endured a brutal rough patch, though she’s more focused on her healing than on the trauma itself.
Of course, Lizzo’s optimism has provided the narrative thrust of her music since she was toiling in Minneapolis’ indie hip-hop scene long before “Truth Hurts” broke. What’s different about “Special” is how sharp the arrangements are, be it the glistening, note-perfect Pointer Sisters homage of “2 Be Loved”; “Everybody’s Gay,” a throbbing club track with echoes of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”; or the swaggy soul-rock of “Break Up Twice,” which prominently interpolates Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop (That Thing).”
The album’s closer, “Coldplay,” samples a sped-up snatch of that band’s “Yellow,” which sounds like a ghastly idea — only Lizzo somehow manages to wind her vocals around Chris Martin’s in a way that feels sweetly sincere.
Her singing and rapping stands up easily to the varied and vivid production here, in part because she’s as flexible as her accomplices: cheerfully braggadocious in “The Sign” — which opens the album with, “Hi, motherf— / Did you miss me?” — earnest and heartfelt in “Special,” sensual yet vulnerable in “Naked,” where an encounter with a lover gets her thinking about how physical perfection is defined.
Fittingly, that R&B slow jam is probably Lizzo’s most beautiful vocal performance on “Special,” with just enough grit in the verses to set up the go-for-it diva moments in the chorus. But Lizzo’s special sauce as a singer is the conversational quality she brings to a song like “I Love You B—,” in which she lays out a partner’s many winning attributes, including his willingness to “give me your hoodie when I’m cold.”
“Bless your heart, it’s too small,” she adds with flawless comic timing — a throwaway line for a less endearing pop star, perhaps, but a typically brilliant bit of self-portraiture for Lizzo.
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