Special is an undeniably imbalanced record, but it’s saved by the strength of its intimate back-half and b-sides.
“Hiii, motherfucker, did you miss me?” begins the first song on Lizzo’s newest album, Special. And, honestly, given that a lot of big-name artists went sad, slow, and/or polarizing in 2021, rather than delivering classic feel-good pop, lead single “About Damn Time” has every right to its title. Following that groovy, richly produced single, the other tracks on Special explore different facets of dance-pop and R&B in Lizzo’s typically eclectic style. Some end up as disposable pop, but there are also a few highlights that even skeptical listeners may enjoy.
The album’s obvious crowd-pleaser is “Everybody’s Gay,” which follows up “About Damn Time” by leaning even harder into carefree disco throwback. Another standout is the soulful “Doo Wop (That Thing)”-interpolating “Break Up Twice,” which features a great vocal performance where Lizzo drags out dramatic notes that sit in just the right part of her range, and a soundscape deepened by brass instruments. This latter point is a sonic theme throughout the album’s production — “Naked” has the brassy arrangement of a musical’s villain song, but flipped into an ode to being comfortable in her own body, and “Birthday Girl” builds its chorus around trumpets that encourage us to celebrate each other (it’s a little cheesy, and the instrumental sounds cheaper than some others on the tracklist, but it’s still a cute little stop-off).
All four of these songs are featured on the album’s second half, which lands much stronger than the first; it’s not that there’s a stark bad/good divide as soon as you cross over to track 7, but several of the early songs don’t feel as fully realized in comparison to later ones. “The Sign” and “Grrls” are constructed from flat-sounding instrumentals (although the latter is a surprising grower on relistens), and the hook of “I Love You Bitch” crosses the line into being a bit too gimmicky. Lyrically, the front half also has more empowerment word-salad songs where punchlines are more important than narrative — which isn’t necessarily an indicator of quality, but lends a different kind of impression when looking at a tracklist in the abstract. Lizzo’s best writing in this vein is either so silly as to achieve easy humor (see: her shouting “bitch!” over her own flute solo in the bridge of “About Damn Time” — again, the entirety of “I Love You Bitch” pales in comparison to this one adlib), or it reveals something heartfelt in a casual, conversational way (“I did the work, it didn’t work” in “2 Be Loved (Am I Ready)”).
Maybe the most striking song on Special, however, is its penultimate one, “If You Love Me,” which houses the most straightforward, vulnerable discussion of insecurities on the album. Whereas a track like “2 Be Loved” goes for quippy call-and-response as Lizzo questions whether she loves herself enough to accept someone else loving her too, “If You Love Me” is a slow-burning R&B cut (with hints of country!) that lays all its emotional cards on the table. “I question everything I know / How can you say I’m beautiful?” she asks, and sighs “Being good to me, like I am someone else, seems so back-handed.” Her vocal performance is alternately desperate and tender; there’s something in the soft fall of the melody in “If you love me, you love all of me… Or none of me at all” that makes this song scan like a long-lost classic. It’s a track that looks for possibilities without simple resolution, but that remains open to love and self-acceptance in whatever form it takes along the way. The #relatable, radio-ready fluff on Special can be quite fun and certainly joyful if it’s played to full commitment (which is harder to execute than it sounds), but most of the gems on this album are the b-sides that go for a bit more depth, whether musically or lyrically.
Published as part of Album Round — July 2022 | Part 2.