Perhaps more than any other current pop star – sorry, bop star – Lizzo is a facilitator of joy. The woman who signs her checks Melissa Viviane Jefferson knows this, which is why she quickly re-recorded ‘Grrls’, a typically infectious track from this wildly entertaining fourth album, after it was criticised for containing an ableist slur. Self-awareness probably also explains why Lizzo’s Cardi B-assisted hit ‘Rumors’ is conspicuous by its absence here. She recently described it as a “very selfish” song that helped her “get a lot off my chest”. Its sustained clap back against “the haters” might have felt out of place on an album that’s more of a warm hug than a raised middle finger.
‘Special’ is also the first album Lizzo has released since she became a festival-slaying superstar. (Her massive breakthrough banger ‘Truth Hurts’ only really took off a few months after Lizzo dropped her excellent third LP ‘Cuz I Love You’ in 2019). This means the stakes have been raised somewhat, so in addition to contributions from her longtime producer Ricky Reed, ‘Special’ features input from an assortment of A-list hitmakers. These days, Lizzo isn’t just booking studio time with Mark Ronson and Max Martin, but also Kanye West collaborator Mike Dean, Dua Lipa‘s co-writer Ian Kirkpatrick and Harry Styles‘ go-to producer Kid Harpoon.
This doesn’t mean Lizzo has ripped up her own sonic rulebook. In fact, there’s a hint of over-familiarity to slinky opener ‘The Sign’, on which she references the most iconic line from ‘Truth Hurts’ by singing “but I can’t forget I’m still that bitch“, then lays out her M.O. a little too plainly: “I keep on writin’ these songs / ‘Cause he keep on doin’ me wrong / And my girls keep singin’ along.” Thankfully, the rest of the album manages to expand on Lizzo’s core values – self-empowerment, sisterly solidarity and body positivity – in ways that feel fresh rather than a retread.
Actually, there’s a real sense of confidence to proceedings. You don’t interpolate Lauryn Hill‘s hip-hop classic ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’, as Lizzo cleverly does on ‘Break Up Twice’, unless you know you’ve earned the right to. ‘Grrls’ is similarly self-assured in the way it flips a sexist old Beastie Boys track (‘Girls’) into an unpretentious female empowerment banger. Lizzo even names the album’s jazzy, romantic closing track ‘Coldplay’ and begins it with a pitch-shifted rendition of the ‘Yellow’ chorus. It would be a hell of a flex even if Lizzo hadn’t told Chris Martin the band’s song is “baby-making music”.
The album’s party tracks are packed with smart touches. Lead single ‘About Damn Time’ borrows the piano line from ‘Hey DJ’, a cult ’80s club hit by The World’s Famous Supreme Team. Another disco bop, ‘Everybody’s Gay’, plays on the modern and antiquated meanings of the word ‘gay’ to welcome Lizzo’s LGBTQ+ fans onto the dancefloor. “It’s a happy place in here, baby, you’re safe,” Lizzo sings. “We can take our mask off / We can all ball and parlay.”
Best of all is ‘2 Be Loved (Am I Ready)’, a delirious future smash on which Lizzo capitalises on the post-‘Blinding Lights’ flair for ’80s pop sounds in the most Lizzo way imaginable: by sounding a bit like the Pointer Sisters. Most artists jump on trends, but Lizzo is capable of bending them to her own aesthetic – then adding a shameless key change for good measure.
Though ‘Special’ clocks in at a brisk 35 minutes, it succeeds in capturing all facets of Lizzo’s megawatt personality. “Don’t need that energy, bitch, I’m a Tesla,” she vamps on ‘The Sign’. ‘Naked’ is a suitably stripped-down ballad on which she disrobes for her partner, then asks them to accept her absolutely: “Come make this body feel sacred / I’m a big girl, can you take it?” And when she sings about relationship goals on ‘I Love You, Bitch’, she does so in a fabulously salty way: “I wanna text ya these fire nudies / This ass on your screen, I feel so complete.”
Perhaps inevitably, given Lizzo’s overwhelmingly positive message, ‘Special’ is sometimes a bit cheesy. Still, it’s cheesy in a way you won’t want to resist. “Is it your birthday, girl? / ‘Cause you lookin’ likе a present,” she sings on ‘Birthday Girl’, a song that practically marches you to the bar and orders you a shot of Tequila Rose. On this evidence, Lizzo knows exactly who she is as an artist and what she wants to achieve: she’s the bad bitch with an incredible talent for making people feel good.
Release date: July 15, 2022