Lizzo — flautist, funky emcee, powerhouse vocalist, Playboy pictorial sensation and the newly minted toast of Coachella — is not wasting a second of her time, or yours, getting to the meat of her bold, brash existence.
Take the title track of “Cuz I Love You,” her first major-label album. The opening moments sound as if you’ve entered its roaring glam-rock-meets-soul-hop reverie somewhere in its middle, with the singer bellowing gruffly that she’s crying ‘cause she loves you, and that such an emotion is foreign to her. “Once upon a time, I was a ho… trying to open up a little more,” Lizzo sings atop a bed of barrelhouse piano and Mick Ronson-like guitar crunches. By tune’s end, a syrupy Hammond organ has entered this sumptuously contagious crackler and its howling protagonist has purchased fresh knickers and gotten a tattoo, all in the name of new love.
It ain’t subtle, but that opener — and most of what follows in funky, guitar-strewn fashion — is sexy, smart and scuffed-up R&B of the highest order. Not a lot of artists do glitzy and bold-facedly honest, so Lizzo has found herself a niche, and a brashly exuberant one at that.
Part of the credit for this theater-of-the-absurd avarice goes to producer Ricky Reed, who’s done nearly-as-colorful work for other bold pop women like Halsey and Meghan Trainor. The Lizzo-Reed collaboration, beginning with 2016’s “Coconut Oil” EP and immediate follow-up singles such as “Fitness,” has taken her weirdly original sound — think fabulously art-damaged hip-hop a la Tierra Whack — and infused it with glossy rainbow tones, gigantic choruses and a sense of Surround Sound drama, all while making sure to include a proud-to-be-big-and-black sense of body positivity that gets a double-down on the cover art of “Cuz I Love You” and its nude pose from the mistress of ceremonies.
The showy piano licks that Lizzo glides on during her open-throated “Heaven Help Me,” the bent six-strings that assist the halting vocalist during the sauntering “Cry Baby” and the razor-sharp guitar solo that commences the ribald kitty-cattiness of “Tempo” (guest emcee Missy Elliott’s sweet spot) are just a few spruced-up production touches that turn Lizzo’s compositions from airtight and skintight anthems into catchy, cinematic epics.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall / Don’t say it, ’cause I know I’m cute,” she purrs, confidentially, on the Bruno Mars-like “Juice,” with its wall of flickering rhythms. “No, I’m not a snack at all / Baby, I’m the whole damn meal.” Replace those guitars with stuttering brass charts and the urgency of a call-and-response gospel meeting and you get the hoot-and-holler of “Exactly How I Feel.” How stunning is that track and Lizzo’s intrepid vocal? I listened to it six times, and I couldn’t tell you what her duet partner Gucci Maine did on the tune. And I like Gucci Maine. But that’s the thing with Lizzo: when she walks into a room, or strides into a song, everything and everyone else is forgotten, and the focus is all her.
While that focus-hogging is real and steaming on the fast tracks of “Cuz I Love You,” it’s even truer on the album’s slower and suppler jams, which are altogether too rare. (“Slow songs, they for skinny hoes,” she explains in the chorus of “Tempo,” so ballads are nearly verboten.)
“Like a Girl” might bathe itself in gurgling aquatic ambience and “Soulmate” comes across as its house-hop cousin, but each is dauntless, empowered and fueled by the most cutting vocalist in modern R&B looking for self-satisfaction and identi-faction. That’s especially righteous on the former, where winning the presidency is floated as a not-impossible task. “Watch me do it / Watch me do it,” she slips into its cool chorus, before welcoming fellow female heroes such as Lauryn Hill and Serena Williams to Lizzo’s table. “If you fight like a girl… then you’re real like a girl / Do your thing / Run the whole damn world.”
Perhaps that’s why Lizzo saves the melancholy, bluesy “Lingerie” slow jam for her album’s finale. It’s a short, sharp stunner. “You better come… my way,” she quietly sing-speaks in a femme-fatale murmur while doling out what might seem like heavy-handed sex-sational clichés (“These panties are see-through, I’m exposed, yeah”) in other artists’ sensualist vocab. For Lizzo, however, size is no object, empowerment comes in all shapes and colors, and she needs to please no one, save for herself and her own funky artist aspirations. For every bit of that, Lizzo is the perfect fit.
If 2019 is looking for shoo-ins for year-end top 10s at the one-third point, it can start right here.
“Cuz I Love You”