Lizzo, one of the few incontestable divas of the present, takes the United Center stage on May 17, and as usual when she hits town, I feel, as a music journalist, obliged to make note. But lately, as a music journalist, I find myself wondering whether her milieu is actually my province… whether, in fact, this is an event that would fit more comfortably in the theater section.
Lizzo isn’t the only performer who triggers this particular doubt; a number of top-tier music acts these days seem principally to be about costumes, choreography and special effects. (Harry Styles comes to mind.) I have no issues with Lizzo worship; the outsize persona she’s cultivated seems not only profoundly genuine but culturally significant. She is, I think, a force for good in the world. I just find myself uncertain how much her actual music has to do with that.
Accordingly, in anticipation of the United Center event, I turned to the singer’s most recent album, 2022’s “Special.” I’ve seen none of the related videos, TV appearances or social-media posts, so I have no associations to bring to the record other than the sounds that emanate from it. I gave it a few earnest listens, and here’s my take: Lizzo is in fact the real deal. Taken on its own merits, “Special” is a solid example of pop craftsmanship at its most polished and professional.
Which isn’t to say it’s perfect; as a lyricist, Lizzo can come across more like a Twitter feed than a versifier. “Don’t need that energy, bitch, I’m a Tesla / Hey, hey, F-O-B on the dresser,” for instance, doesn’t lack wit, but it doesn’t do much beyond expressing a kind of sassy bravado; it does not, in other words, connect in the way a great pop lyric can. And that invocation of “bitch”—look, I get it; young women have co-opted the term and turned it from a slur into an affirmation (the way gay people did with “queer”). But Lizzo just won’t let go of it; she invokes the word an astounding forty-eight times over the course of the album. Not sure that’s going to age well. (Like, would anyone still listen to Simon & Garfunkel if they wedged “groovy” into every single tune instead of just the one?)
That said, there are moments when Lizzo’s brand of body-positivity and supercharged girl power aren’t just exhilarating but revealing, as when she sings, “Fame is pretty new, but I’ve been used to people judgin’ me / That’s why I move the way I move and why I’m so in love with me.” She also draws back the curtain on some surprisingly affecting moments of vulnerability, as in “If You Love Me,” where she sings:
I’ve learned to love me as myself
But when I’m with somebody else
I question everything I know
How can you say I’m beautiful?
Likewise, on the standout track, “Naked,” she sings, “Come make this body feel sacred / I’m a big girl, can you take it?”
If the lyrics are hit-and-miss, the music itself is topflight. As befits a pop record, most of the songs are fairly simple constructions; “The Sign” is largely a progression of the same three descending chords, while the title track turns that around for a series of repeated ascending chords. But there are some absolutely insidious ear worms, and a few irresistible call-and-response passages.
But the real revelation is Lizzo’s voice. Without the distraction of her defiant physicality and flamboyant theatricality, her singing shoots to the fore, and it’s absolutely radiant. Just listen to her on “Break Up Twice”—she’s wailing like Gladys Knight.
And it’s not just the crushed-velvet texture and soaring sonics that get you; it’s her innate musicality. We all learned last year, in one of the sillier kerfuffles she’s triggered in her career, that she’s a classically trained flutist, and you can hear that training in her singing; she understands meter, she understands how to use it to alter her phrasing, she can bend and shape a melodic line for maximum effect. She raps with dizzying precision, yet slam-dunks legato as well—listen to her float languidly over the disco bassline of “Everybody’s Gay.”
Right, then—girl’s got the chops. The question becomes, how best does she honor her gifts? By becoming an artist, or becoming a brand? Lizzo has clearly opted, at least for now, for the latter—not, I think, cynically, or out of some kind of unbridled ambition. I think she sees herself as an evangelist for a particular kind of woman who feels sidelined by societal dictates (“In case nobody told you today / You’re special”), and the most effective way to reach that woman is by producing pop songs that ecstatically celebrate sisterhood and inclusion. (One tune, “Birthday Girl,” features spoken-word inserts of Lizzo fans sharing their birthdays and sun signs.)
But Lizzo’s river of resources clearly runs deeper than that, and there are hints on “Special” of where her deeper influences lie. (She borrows from Lauryn Hill and Beastie Boys, and one track—“I Love You Bitch”—is pretty clearly a response to Z-Ro’s “I Hate You Bitch.”) It will be interesting to watch this artist grow and change over the course of what seems likely to be a long career.
Actually, it’ll be more than interesting; it’ll be a blast. That Lizzo is a brilliantly gifted showman shouldn’t be sniffed at. Some of the greatest music-makers of the past quarter-century have also been spectacular stage presences—think Prince or Beyoncé. I’m willing to let Lizzo take her time achieving that level of godhood, simply because she’s going to make every step of the journey as joyously confrontational as possible.
Imagining what that future Lizzo might look like, I went back to her Tiny Desk concert from three years past—where she’s basically hemmed in behind her mic, backed by a mere quartet. No United Center strobe lights and backup dancers here. But she’s so completely a creature of the stage that she uses that single column of space as a choreographic envelope—she writhes, shrugs and undulates without breaking its seal. When she pauses to dab some sweat from her face, the gesture is comically balletic; she has a dancer’s instincts as well as a stand-up comic’s. But, again, it’s the singing that hits you; in this stripped-down setting, she torches the place to the ground. (She’d be a killer blues singer.) When a baby cries during a song break, she offers it the mic, then does an improvisation of a baby’s cry as soul vocalizing; it’s both hilarious and seriously impressive. You find yourself thinking, Etta James couldn’t do that.
So maybe, when you’re being bowled over by the pyrotechnics of the United Center show, shut your eyes for a few moments and listen to what’s undergirding all the flash and fury. That’s what’s going to make Lizzo endure. And you can quote me. Bitch.
Robert Rodi is an author, spoken-word performer and musician who has served as Newcity’s Music Editor since 2014. He’s written more than a dozen books, including the travel memoir “Seven Seasons In Siena,” and his literary and music criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Huffington Post and many other national and regional publications.