There is no reason to believe that Lizzo intended to make a political album with Special. These 12 songs are a sonic bouquet of soul, R&B, hip-hop, and pop, about the radical joy of facing down your past and loving yourself anyway. The album takes us on an intensely vulnerable journey. But arriving in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s reversal if Roe v. Wade, it’s hard not to take Lizzo’s words of self-love as an indictment of our national cognitive dissonance. In 2022, America’s tagline could be “Welcome to Gilead, where it’s bad bitch o’clock somewhere.”
Arriving mere weeks after the Roe decision, when every woman in the United States has lost autonomy over their bodies, it is impossible to hear Special in any other way. And all Lizzo did to make a political statement was to let us in on what it feels like as a thick Black woman in the 21st century who doesn’t tiptoe around who she is and what it’s been like.
Three years ago, Lizzo’s sleeper hit “Truth Hurts” dominated the world, setting the stage for her excellent 2019 album Cuz I Love You. Then came the pandemic. Special is a document of what Lizzo was dealing with on her journey to find sex, self-acceptance, and hope. Truth hurts. But truth sets you free. The music on this album is the most unabashedly joyous, sonically diverse and emotionally profound album put out by a major label since Beyonce’s Lemonade.
It’s hard for an artist with such a massive debut to top it the second time around without some big musical shift in style to emulate the rest of the culture. Lizzo did not do that on Special. Instead, she challenged herself to go deeper into herself, into the music she loves. It’s got everything from Eighties power bops to steamy disco to confessional R&B. Daft Punk to the Delfonics. Electric and acoustic guitars, orchestra, strings, a chipmunk Chris Martin, and plenty of flute. There are twelve songs and not a dud among them.
The album kicks off with a twerk trilogy starting with “The Sign,” where Lizzo lays out the raison d’être: “I keep on writing these songs cuz he keep on doing me wrong.” Amen. Now grab your smoothie and buckle in. Next is the Nile Rodgers-inflected “About Damn Time,” a four-on-the-floor groove with a nasty flute solo by ya girl. “Grrrls” absolves a long-problematic Beastie Boys sample by recasting it as an ode to picking bar fights with your BFFs. Bonus points for the lyric that sounds like, but is definitely not, “sussudio.”
Lizzo takes a page from the Whitney Houston “How Will I Know” playbook on “2 B Loved (Am I Ready)” — an aerobic anthem that sounds like the montage song in every Eighties movie — complete with the final chorus gear shift into AquaNet oblivion. Lizzo is holding out for a hero. But the only person coming to the rescue is herself. “I did the work. It didn’t work.”
That bitter truth sets the tone for the second half of the record, and it’s the most profoundly honest, deftly produced, and utterly raw songs we’ve heard from Lizzo. The title track, “Special,” is a horn-laden masterpiece centered around Lizzo’s smooth, self-assured flow, singing about how she used to feel alone even though she wasn’t. “Broken but damn you’re still perfect,” she sings triumphantly.
The album ends with the emotional grandslam of “Coldplay, which interpolates “Yellow.” In her recent interview with Zane Lowe, Lizzo said it’s the most literal song she’s ever written. She got in the studio and basically did a 35-minute spoken-word retelling of her vacation in Tulum and all of the thoughts pinging around in her mind. Lizzo’s self-conscious thoughts always seem to wind down to the same fundamental question. Can I trust this? Can I trust you? Can I trust myself? Music has a strange quality where, briefly, we suspend those questions as if they belong to another plane of relaity. That’s what “Yellow” did for Lizzo. And the song is about her, back home, untangling the two.
“Coldplay” is the best song of Lizzo’s career so far. But the song that captures the essence of this album comes at its midpoint, a simple, melodic confection called “I Love You Bitch.” The love she’s professing could theoretically work for any relationship, but the disbelief and relief in her voice makes it abundantly clear the person she has finally come to love–with all of her flaws–is herself.
Today, that’s an act of rebellion in a society that gaslights young women into getting preventative Botox and lip fillers, that tells us to hate natural bodies, to live in a hole of denial that our bodies will betray us all in the end. Lizzo knows where that train of trying to keep up with impossible standards leads, and it is a lonely, hollow place. That’s not some lofty new idea. It’s the truth. “Why don’t you try, do a little slow dance,” she sings. “‘Cuz life goes too fast.”