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The Brash Empowerment of Lizzo’s ‘Cuz I Love You’

The singer/rapper/virtuosic flutist’s new album is ferocious, cocky, and vulnerable all at once

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Listen, we all have our own personal favorite moment from the singer/rapper/flutist Lizzo’s bonkers performance of her breakout single “Juice” on Ellen back in January. This is a given. You are entitled, certainly, to your own opinion.

Maybe you revel in the delirious middle-school pageantry of it all. (Lizzo starts off backstage, singing, “Mirror, mirror on the wall / Don’t say it ’cause I know I’m cute” and gazing into two sparkly, purple handheld mirrors other people are holding.) Perhaps you are a connoisseur of stupendously awkward interactions between Ellen’s reliably brash musical guests and Ellen’s reliably stiff studio audience. (“The juice ain’t worth the squeeze if the juice don’t look like this,” Lizzo declares, twerking her way down the third row.) Most likely it’s just the thrill of hearing that supernova chorus—”Juice” is the best pure pop song of 2019 to date, with a wedding-funk exuberance worthy of Bruno Mars—electrify so many unsuspecting and stiffly delighted humans. (The chorus’s most important line, which I just noticed on my 300th listen, is “I’m the pudding in the proof.”)

Or, if you’re like me, you just really love the flute solo.

The flute solo is not, technically, a surprise. I did say flutist somewhere up there: Lizzo is classically trained and not shy about flaunting it, to the point that her flute, whose name is Sasha Flute, has its own Instagram account. But there is something shocking and transcendent about the six-second interval when Lizzo disappears, her backup dancers saunter offstage, her DJ twirls around a few times, Ellen’s studio audience cheers for a reason that is not immediately apparent, and then, boosh: FLUTE SOLO.

Just incredible. “Juice” is now ubiquitous without feeling tiresome: It has soundtracked both the Long Shot trailer (my personal favorite moment of which is the Charlize Theron spit-take, no question) and the series-finale closing scene of Broad City, a like-minded ecstatic show that to its infinite credit got hip to Lizzo way earlier. Her ascension has already begun. This outrageously joyous person deserves to be a huge star; more to the point, we deserve it. Pop music needs more loopy, bombastic radiance, more thunderous jams that inspire us to throw away those ratty old sweatpants and actually leave the house and live a little, or embrace those ratty old sweatpants and reject the outside world entirely and live even more.

Lizzo was born in Detroit, raised mostly in Houston, and first began attracting national attention musically and attitudinally in Minneapolis—she pops up on a splendid 2014 Prince track called “BOYTROUBLE” doing her approximation of a Prince Scream, an experience she now likens to “a fairy tale.” Her first two albums, Lizzobangers (2013) and Big Grrrl Small World (2015), are raw but loaded with promising material: the adventurous R&B excursions, the ferocious and lascivious rapping, the singular mix of cockiness and even bolder vulnerability. “Good As Hell,” from her 2016 EP Coconut Oil, was a revelation, infectious and gospel-tinged and galvanizing without pandering or tipping over too far into shampoo-ad sentimentality.

“I am a pioneer in creating modern self-love, body-positive music,” Lizzo told The Cut’s Allison P. Davis in February in a stupendous, ludicrously quotable profile. (Also: “I just took a DNA test; turns out I’m 100 percent that bitch.”) She described her major-label debut album, Cuz I Love You, out Friday, with the following hypothetical: “If Aretha Franklin made a ratchet-ass rap album in 2019.” Yes. Definitely. That is an eerily precise description. Lizzo is belting from this record’s opening seconds, as though standing at street level and trying to seduce and/or insult and/or inspire someone in an eighth-floor apartment window; the quick bursts of flute virtuosity are tasteful or gleefully tasteless as circumstances require.

The best song is a mesmerizing and pervy rap duet with Missy Elliott called “Tempo,” a worthy “Work It” disciple indeed: “Fuck it up, fuck it up / Boyfriend watchin’, oh now he wanna knuckle up / Get on this ride, baby, you gon’ have to buckle up / Thick thighs save lives, call me little buttercup.” I wish they’d done this one on Ellen also, though multiple people would likely have been arrested, including Ellen.

From CupcakKe (who is way pornier) to Megan Thee Stallion (who is super Texan), there is happily no shortage of young, innovative hybrid rappers currently stalking both the internet and, soon, the charts, none of them quite unprecedented, none of them quite like any of the others. But when Cuz I Love You slows down, beefs up, and leans hard toward blues and funk on torch songs like “Jerome” and “Cry Baby” and the dynamite album closer “Lingerie,” Lizzo’s voice most closely recalls the flexibility and intensity of Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard. If a swampy rock band ever needs a flutist, and an attitude adjustment, and genuine star power, and a chance in hell of actually succeeding in 2019, Lizzo is their only option. Though she, conversely, hardly needs the backing from anyone.

The only tension on this album, to the degree that it allows for tension and uncertainty of any kind, is when it flirts with the line between empowerment and #empowerment. “Like a Girl” is a high-energy reclamation of that particular insult that you can imagine powering a sassy rom-com montage, and “Soulmate” is a song-length variation on Ariana Grande’s “her name is Ari, and I’m so good with that” line about romancing herself on “Thank U, Next.” Chorus: “’Cause I’m my own soulmate / I know how to love me / I know that I’m always gonna hold me down.” This is not exactly subtle, but subtlety is not Lizzo’s value proposition. Her value proposition encompasses nearly everything else.

“All these fucking hashtags to convince people that the way you look is fine,” Lizzo told The Cut. “Isn’t that fucking crazy? I say I love myself, and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s so brave. She’s so political.’ For what? All I said is ‘I love myself, bitch!’” You get that message loud and clear throughout Cuz I Love You—she is a virtuoso of the word bitch especially—and it’s most convincing when she’s not spelling it out. True, almost every song on this record could be easily repurposed to try to sell you something. Makeup. Alcohol. Cars. Vacations. New systems of government. But what Lizzo’s really offering is the thrilling reassurance that you don’t gotta buy any of it.