After conquering the world in a whirl of twerking and flute playing, the singer and rapper Lizzo took three years to create the follow-up to her hit 2019 album, Cuz I Love You. During that period, she wrote almost 170 tracks and whittled them down to 12 songs: an exhaustive process, for a sacred purpose. “I felt like this was what not only I needed to hear,” she explains in a voice message on the Apple Music version of the new album, Special, “but you needed to hear, and the whole world needs to hear.”
“Necessity” might seem like an overly heavy justification for party music that contains the phrase fire nudies. Do we ever, really, need more pop songs? Bold claims of significance usually come from famous artists who, one suspects, are mostly interested in being worshipped even more. The likes of Madonna and Kanye West, for example, act as though they are personally integral to the cause of world peace. Yet Lizzo’s assertions of importance are pretty credible. We’ve never had a star quite like her, and the catchy, communal Special should only deepen her influence.
Some of that influence is simply in terms of music. Hip-hop has always co-mingled with pop, but one big story of the past decade or so has been the dissolving of all boundaries between singing and speaking in rhyme. In a funny way, and partly thanks to Lizzo, this has made pop more like musical theater. On the radio and on TikTok today, the songs that thrive are simultaneously conversational and anthemic, harmonically straightforward while also information-dense. Lizzo knows how to mix these ingredients for the widest possible consumption. She adores a sharp, shoutable chorus and a precise drumbeat. She also knows that jokes, callbacks, digressions, micro-inflections, onomatopoeias, and WTFs make songs addictive to modern audiences.
On Special, she doubles down on everything-to-everyone entertainment. The instrumentation aims for the sort of self-consciously retro funk and disco that never seem to go out of style. The production and writing credits feature venerated hitmakers including Max Martin, Ricky Reed, Omer Fedi, and Benny Blanco. Whereas previous Lizzo track lists included clunky or overwrought moments, the songs on Special breeze by, imprinting lyrics and melodies onto the listener by subliminal magic. On the standout “2 Be Loved (Am I Ready),” jazzy keyboards and gospel exclamations are syncopated with explosive panache. Awe-inspiringly earnest, the song should earn the same smiles and sweat as a Richard Simmons workout.
Thankfully, Lizzo has not tamped down her personality in search of more hits. Beneath its silky ’70s arrangement, the smash single “About Damn Time” pulls the same trick as a Jackass episode, elevating nonsense into art. “I’m not the girl I was or used to be,” she sings—a hilariously redundant line, delivered in a tone so pining that your heart might ache twice over. The final song on the album, “Coldplay,” interpolates the band of its title but ends up being one of the most original songs in Lizzo’s catalog. Narrating a story from her past, she summons a late-night, beachside vibe to convey the bittersweet way that our happiest memories echo into our future.
That track, like all the tracks on Special, is a love song—but for Lizzo, a love song is another form of message song. She approaches making music a bit like writing an essay, with thesis statements backed up by colorful examples and persuasive arguments. On “Break Up Twice,” a delicate, neo-soul ballad, Lizzo converts a personal tale into universally applicable advice: “Real love, it takes time.” Other tracks contribute to her famous campaigns against body shaming, sexism, and racism. When people on the internet get mad at her, she asks on “Special,” “Is it just because I’m Black and heavy?” The didacticism can sometimes grate, but in general Special succeeds at prioritizing songcraft over sloganeering.
Besides, Lizzo has reason to preach: By breaking the image of who gets to become not just a celebrated performer but also a sexy and self-assured one, she really does represent an evolution for popular culture. Her oeuvre celebrates her success and confidence as not just a personal win but a win for nothing less than humankind. The question she faces at this point is one that every rising, lightly messianic pop idol must answer: How can she continue touting her fabulousness without losing the relatability that made people love her in the first place?
Special offers a pretty effective answer to that question. Many of the songs mine relationship-related insecurity to show the kind of vulnerability that has sustained the likes of Beyoncé and Taylor Swift: “I accept the things that I can’t change about you / But can’t accept the fact that I can’t change myself too,” she confesses on “If You Love Me.” Even more refreshing, Lizzo often emphasizes the we rather than me. “Grrrls” and “Birthday Girl” shower her posse of friends—and by implication, her community of fans—with gallons of affection. The chorus of the title track emulates a crisis hotline by directly addressing the listener: “You’re special, I’m so glad that you’re still with us.”
The most moving moment of the album happens on the opener, “The Sign,” an upbeat account of picking oneself up after relationship setbacks and self-doubt. Lizzo marvels that she “[keeps] on writin’ these songs” and “my girls keep singin’ along”—then adds, in the song’s final, almost tossed-off line, “I guess that I’m not alone.” The thought of the artist and the audience forming a support system is lovely, and makes the case for the necessity of entertainers who never stop working for the spotlight.