First and foremost, for the true heads, here are all the places on Cuz I Love You, her third album but major-label debut, where former Houston high school marching-band geek and college music-major dropout Melissa Jefferson, aka Lizzo, lays down some sweet flute science—the flourish that distinguishes her as the most flute-forward frontperson in mainstream pop since the reign of Jethro Tull:
1. In the last 10 seconds of “Tempo,” the advance single on which she matches wits with guiding light Missy Elliott.
2. On my favorite part of “Exactly How I Feel,” featuring Gucci Mane, in which Lizzo idiosyncratically enunciates the title phrase while a high whistle rises in the background, unless that’s just a boiling kettle.
3. Maybe a little bit, heavily filtered, on “Better in Color,” unless that’s just a synthesizer.
4. And at last, gloriously, back in the foreground for the last 30 seconds of “Heaven Help Me,” suddenly dialing the song’s 21st-century-gospel-blues vibe down to 3 and bumping the “Colour My World” fader up to 11.
This is plainly far too little flute. And that’s surprising, because Sasha Flute (it has its own Instagram account) is the only part of the brand this brash, ridiculously lovable 30-year-old rapper-singer-dancer-social-media-maestro has nurtured over the past half-decade that she and her producers do not push to the precipice of excess in this album’s action-packed 33 minutes. It’s an album hyperconscious of itself as a declaration that “I have arrived!”
There’s no question that Lizzo deserves her victory parade. She’s been earning it ever since early indie-rap singles like “Batches and Cookies” from her 2013 LP Lizzobangers, which she made while hanging out on the Minneapolis scene and getting an enthusiastic co-sign (as well as backup-vocal duties) from Prince, and the more focused black-is-beautiful ballad “My Skin” (“I woke up in this”) from her second album, Big Grrrl Small World. The confetti was already flying when “Good as Hell,” a song originally attached to the third Barbershop movie in 2016, migrated to multiple other film and TV soundtracks and of course RuPaul’s Drag Race (a connection that would lead eventually to Cuz I Love You’s equally ebullient single “Juice” getting its own all–Drag Race video) and everywhere quality memes are propagated. A Hanif Abdurraqib essay on NPR Music last year declared “Good as Hell” a bona fide American anthem, and I’m right there wanting to rise in the bleachers of some alternative-reality stadium and roar along with the crowd: “I do my hair toss/ Check my nails/ Baby, how you feelin’?/ Feeling good as hell!”
Then there was “Boys,” one of the best singles of 2018, a tasty ball of lust and dismissiveness (“Baby, I don’t need you/ I just wanna freak you”) that, in lyrics and video, extended Lizzo’s embrace of all shapes and sizes to the unfairer sex. And most recently, “Juice” itself, with a retro electro-funk vibe that drove a stake into “Uptown Funk” as the ultimate 2010s aerobic throwback strut, and without any of those pesky plagiarism accusations.
Anyone who’s been following along can only celebrate the ascension to the mainstream-pop Iron Throne that Cuz I Love You marks for Lizzo—even if the album itself can feel a little redundant by comparison. While they’re pretty much always fun, many of these tracks do little more than work clever variations on the themes of body and sex positivity, caring for and loving yourself, and not taking any shit that have already made Lizzo semi-famous. The statement made on the album cover, where the ample Lizzo poses sensually and self-assuredly nude, the camera relishing every curve, is a landmark. But on songs such as “Like a Girl” (spoiler—it’s a good thing, not an insult) and “Soulmate” (spoiler—Lizzo’s soulmate is Lizzo), the message gets rather … message-y.
To be sure, it’s a message that’s seldom gotten enough airing, one many fans will never tire of, and even the weaker lines are delivered with Lizzo’s ravishingly unstoppable panache. But the repetitive push is accentuated by production that tends to stuff every sonic corner with extra hooks and layered vocals and sound effects, as if to pummel the listener with likability. Nobody’s ever doubted Lizzo’s work ethic, but some of these tracks risk making her come off as a try-hard, like (I wince to say) a less winsome Meghan Trainor. The instructive exception there is “Tempo,” a leaner club track that Lizzo says she almost left off the album for being too different, when what this record needs is more of that variety. As Alexis Petridis wrote in the Guardian, it’s as if the presence of Missy Elliott, with her history of less-is-more production that made space for her performative genius, cowed the producers into unaccustomed restraint. It’s great news that there’s far more room now than in Missy’s day for multiple female rappers to reach listeners at once—Lizzo doesn’t have to fret that Cupcakke, Noname, City Girls, Nicki Minaj, or Cardi B are occupying her only possible spot. But I do wish her crossover into major pop production gave her as much of a panoply of inventive showcase tracks as Cardi’s Invasion of Privacy offered this time last year.
What Cuz I Love You does have as a Lizzo novelty is a sideline in bluesy, raw-throated balladry—sparked, she told Allison P. Davis of the Cut in February, by the thought of what would happen “if Aretha Franklin made a ratchet-ass rap album in 2019.” She shied away from the style before because she feared being stereotyped as a big-black-girl belter, but she’s confident enough now to show off her full potential. Lizzo’s gospel-raised, harmony-educated pipes are up to the challenge, though the coincidence of her album coming out the month that Franklin’s concert documentary Amazing Grace has finally hit theaters makes for an A/B comparison nobody could quite withstand. But once again, here, her producers do her a disservice.
It’s worst on the title track, made with chameleonic rock-group/producers X Ambassadors, which is unfortunately also the opener, and strains to sound like classic soul—Lizzo puts in the passion, but the audio is way too thin and paint-by-numbers to be persuasive. Things are better on “Jerome,” which gets a lot of, well, juice out of its funny and original take on the kiss-off song. (As Lizzo told Apple Music, “There aren’t a lot of songs about fuccboi love. About when you’re in a situationship.”) “Crybaby,” instead of classic soul, draws on Lizzo’s adopted Minneapolis roots and offers her a convincing counterfeit of a Prince ballad, which she slides into like a sizzling, effervescent Champagne bubble bath. And though “Heaven Help Me” again isn’t doing that much musically underneath, Lizzo works every rhythmic and timbral trick in her repertoire (plus the flute!) to pull it off. But every gesture of vulnerability on the album feels hemmed in by the imperative that it never read as actual weakness, which doesn’t let it quite feel real. And that narrows the humanity that Lizzo seems allowed to express.
Sadly, most contemporary pop producers get lazy when they go retro—they could take a lot of lessons from Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, whose rearview fetishism doesn’t do him that many favors with his own band but seems to flourish when he’s in the producer’s chair. His work this year with the superb black British country-soul singer Yola, on her album Walk Through Fire, has all the warmth, reverb, aural headroom, and punch that Lizzo’s retro tracks here lack.
Thankfully, Cuz I Love You closes with “Lingerie,” which, despite its base of electric-guitar noodling, is an utterly undeniable and current-sounding instance of Lizzo slaying a slow jam, in a manner all her own. Riffing on the cute pun of “I lounge around in my lingerie,” she paints an erotic scene of a woman anticipating her lover showing up to “make me crescendo” that goes beyond aspirational assertions of self-affirmation. Here she really gets to revel in what that confidence, that self-love, can bring her way. It can expand the world and put the cherry on top of just desserts. The song’s only fault is that it should be three times longer and really get its Isaac Hayes on (and Isaac loved some flute).
It sounds like the first track of a follow-up album that might be less about self-defense and more about the life that self-acceptance makes possible. And along with that, one that could deal less guardedly with the journey it took to get there, which for Lizzo included being overwhelmed by her father’s death, living in her car for a time, struggling to reconcile with her mother, finding her place in the mostly white Minneapolis music scene—all the tougher chapters that showed up in her early albums but now seem a little papered over in order to sell a predominantly positive persona. I don’t mean that she should recount these things literally. But letting them further into her art will make it richer than it can be when it’s just a big flamboyant outstretched “stop” hand to all that. I get why this album’s that way. Let’s all hope it streams in the billions, so Lizzo can feel more completely free to bop when she wants to and hurt as deeply as she pleases.
And also to play a lot more flute.
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