The Chart-Topping Artist With a Complicated Empowerment Message

The singer and flutist Lizzo’s new album is as impressive as it is ad-friendly. But navigating both repressive industry standards and commercial co-option is tricky territory.

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The Minneapolis-bred rapper, singer, and flutist Lizzo is proud to do things “Like a Girl.” The breezy empowerment anthem appears on her new album, Cuz I Love You, with a pre-chorus that sounds as though it were written solely to soundtrack the plush pink changing rooms of the Wing: “Sugar, spice, and I’m nice / Show me what you’re made of / Crazy, sexy, cool, baby / With or without makeup.”

“Like a Girl,” like some of Lizzo’s most popular songs to date, is a tad mawkish but nonetheless feel-good. So it’s not wholly surprising that the perennially positive singer sounded a bit defensive about the feminist-adjacent missive during a recent interview with The Cut, when she expounded on its meaning: After being told the track, and its premise, sounded rather commercial, Lizzo quickly justified the song’s concept by suggesting that her goal was to take ostensibly basic concepts—including the brand-dominated territory of “women’s empowerment”—and broaden them to include previously excluded groups. “I’m trying to be inclusive,” the artist said. “Could this song be in a Dove commercial? Yes, but it won’t. They aren’t thinking about everybody.”

Lizzo’s infectious music does often sound like it’s made with everybody in mind. It’s meticulously universal, the kind of art that’s said to push boundaries both because of its content and by virtue of who is making it. It feels good to root for Lizzo—not just because of her undeniable talent, but also because of what and whom she represents. Lizzo is, after all, a fat black woman; she shirks easy categorization along numerous lines, including sexual orientation. Her music is celebratory. It’s defiant and boundary-pushing by necessity. It’s also fun: Listening to Lizzo can feel like taking a SoulCycle class without all the requisite shame.

There has never been a woman like Lizzo at her level of pop stardom—and her road to fame has come with no shortage of slights, often rooted in or amplified by overlapping forms of discrimination. She has utilized her expanding platform to address racism, sexism, and fatphobia in her music and media appearances alike. It’s endeared her to a legion of fans, many of whom feel like misfits in their own ways. Lizzo has managed to harness the isolation she’s felt at various points in her life and produce work that marries social critique with self-affirmation, all buoyed by bounce-heavy production. This savvy has also primed her for commercial co-option. In that same interview with The Cut, Lizzo bristled at the way she’s been crowned a queen, an Icon™ of the sometimes-fraught Body Positivity movement:

“It’s not a label I wanted to put on myself. It’s just my existence. All these fucking hashtags to convince people that the way you look is fine. Isn’t that fucking crazy? I say I love myself, and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s so brave. She’s so political.’ For what? … Even when body positivity is over, it’s not like I’m going to be a thin white woman. I’m going to be black and fat. That’s just hopping on a trend and expecting people to blindly love themselves. That’s fake love. I’m trying to figure out how to actually live it.”

This emphasis on her realness and authenticity has characterized much of the press Lizzo has received in recent months. Cuz I Love You reached the No. 1 spot on the iTunes chart over the weekend, ahead of even Beyoncé’s Homecoming live album. For many listeners, her ascent has been a welcome sign that artists—particularly women, musicians of color, and fat people—may not need to sacrifice their essential selves to find loyal audiences or success. In an entertainment landscape that often forces people to choose between valuing underrepresented communities and producing commercially viable work, Lizzo seemed to be doing both. And winning.

It’s particularly disappointing, then, that the artist reacted to a mildly critical review, published on Pitchfork early Monday morning, with a series of tweets denigrating the writer, Rawiya Kameir, also a black woman. “PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DONT MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED,” Lizzo tweeted. She then followed up with a series of now-deleted disclaimers that attempted to both downplay the original hyperbole and further drag the writer in question for her perceived pettiness. (In one, she suggested that only people who cook well can judge her food.)

The comments are troubling for a variety of reasons: Even without taking into account the bizarre invocation of unemployment in an industry already characterized by massive economic instability, this is a dubious kind of gatekeeping. To suggest that only musicians can critique music is a bizarre line to draw, an echo of the same sort of hierarchical thinking that much of Lizzo’s music and public persona has thus far explicitly opposed. The comments also betray a fundamental misreading of the purpose of criticism, which exists not just to rank artists against some imperceptible standard, but also to contextualize art within the genre, medium, and world it enters.

It’s understandable that any artist would be, to quote a famously cantankerous musician, “sensitive about [their] shit.” And for multiply marginalized artists such as Lizzo, navigating the boundary between shrinking oneself to fit repressive industry standards and over-marketing one’s own identity is tricky territory. Kameir’s review was a thoughtful assessment not just of Lizzo’s music itself, but also of how the musician’s prominence affects the fans whom she is most beholden to: “Lizzo does have a genre, something like empowerment-core, and she offers songs for an astonishing array of demographics: thick women, independent women, women in general, anyone struggling with body image, people who are single, people who wish to become single, etc.,” Kameir wrote. “Lizzo’s music performs an important social function. The sound might disappoint, but there will be people moved to transformations of their own thanks to her songs. And that’s important, too.”

The Pitchfork review was by no means scathing, or even mostly negative—nor was it a mean-spirited attack on Lizzo’s musicianship. Rather, this kind of thorough analysis is rare; artists such as Lizzo are too often either dismissed immediately or written about exclusively as “unapologetic” avatars of whatever identity is most convenient to name-check. Cuz I Love You, like much of the artist’s other work, has been met with near-rapturous praise from critics. This reception, and her response to one perceived aberration, recall Chance the Rapper’s reported outrage at MTV News for publishing a lukewarm review in 2016. The artist’s manager threatened that he would no longer work with MTV, prompting the publication to remove the post, which the writer David Turner later published on his own Medium account. (Again, the critic in question was black, a troubling detail for artists whose public personas hinge largely on championing their communities.)

In both cases, overwhelmingly beloved musicians—who gained popularity partly through their lovable music—lashed out at critics who were simply doing their jobs. It’s an avoidable shame that Lizzo’s reaction to a comprehensive, if also critical, response to her work has now served to distract from the music itself.

Cuz I Love You is, after all, an eminently enjoyable record. Even with its many soundtrack-ready bops, the album has no shortage of vulnerable, masterly songs with immense replay value. There’s the soulful ballad “Jerome” and the sexy ode to self, “Lingerie.” For every ad-ready “Like a Girl,” there’s an original, high-powered show of impressive vocal range such as “Crybaby,” on which she belts over brash electric guitar riffs: “I swore you’d never see this side / But it’s so hard to say goodbye / I don’t need to apologize / Us big girls gotta cry.” There are also funky anthems like “Juice,” a natural extension of the hyper-confident 2017 single “Truth Hurts.” (The latter track still has one of the most memorable lines in modern pop: “I just took a DNA test / turns out I’m 100% that bitch.”)

On the Missy Elliott–assisted “Tempo,” Lizzo is collaborative, sharp, and cheeky. The Ricky Reed–produced song’s chorus reminds listeners exactly what it is that Lizzo’s music, at its best, inspires listeners to do: “Slow songs, they for skinny hoes / Can’t move all of this here to one of those,” she sings. “I’m a thick bitch, I need tempo (Tempo) / Fuck it up to the tempo.”