For a couple of years in the mid-2010s, Chance the Rapper was hip-hop’s golden child. He was the restless champion of spoken word and gospel music. He was a countermelody to the dystopian sounds coming from his city’s drill scene. This status was on the strength of his mixtapes (Acid Rap, Coloring Book) and collaborations (Surf, “Ultralight Beam”). His music became brighter and brighter with time. In 2019, he finally released his proper debut album, The Big Day, a rather sappy and soft-spoken ordeal with a peculiar detachment from his genre’s darkening mood. Critics panned the record. Twitter roasted Chance. His manager sued him. It was brutal. The world turned zany and dark and argumentative in the several years since Acid Rap, and suddenly no one was trying to hear Chance the Rapper spitting double-time baby-speak about his loving wife and Christ.
I often thought about Chance while listening to Lizzo’s latest album, Special, released on Friday. I even found some decade-old footage of Lizzo interviewing Chance for an indie publication in Minneapolis before either of them were stars. There’s some kinship between them, for sure. They’re both world-conquering performers with sunny dispositions. They’re both vulgar but nonetheless “safe” by hip-hop standards. Lizzo makes the stuff of rom-com soundtracks; in fact, she blew up three years ago based on a lucky placement for her once-stagnant single, “Truth Hurts,” in Someone Great on Netflix.
Lizzo, unlike Chance, was a pop musician from the start. A rapper, yes, but running in the old lane vacated by Macklemore, churning out rap crossover hits with a bougie political inclination. Last month, Lizzo answered a social media controversy about her use of the term “spaz” on the single “Grrrls” by quickly apologizing and rereleasing the song with the term removed. This gives you a sense of her fan base and her positioning in hip-hop: pop-minded, progressive, feminine, online. This contingent is a bit more receptive to a rapper relentlessly spreading positivity and warmth.
Her previous album, Cuz I Love You, was a glossy and jangling pop breakthrough. It was very Bruno Mars. Lizzo punched up the cheesiness in her songs with her raw power as a performer. Special is a bit less loud and spectacular than her previous effort but still every bit as playful. She opens the album with her first two words being “Hi, motherfucker,” and yet she’ll still leave you thinking, by the end of this thing, she’s made a record primarily for middle schoolers. She still has some mischievous moments. She yells, “I love you, bitch!” once she breaks into the chorus for the song bearing this exclamation as its title. She raps about a costume party unraveling into a twilight orgy on “Everybody’s Gay.” But the more typical lyrics on the more typical songs, such as “About Damn Time” and “2 Be Loved (Am I Ready),” tend to emphasize self-confidence, self-help, and self-care. She’s largely wholesome and only scarcely obscene. On Special, her raunchiness isn’t often an end in and of itself, but rather a measure of her self-assurance. The slow tease “Naked” isn’t a song about loving another person. It’s a song about loving yourself.
That’s the fault line with Lizzo in general. If you can’t stand the whole notion of self-care and what writer Rawiya Kameir, in a review for Pitchfork, once described as “empowerment-core” entertainment, then you’re not gonna have much patience for Lizzo and Special. “I’ve been twerking and making smoothies,” she sings on “The Sign,” “it’s called healing!” If you’re invested in her progressive social causes—sex positivity, body positivity, Black women’s empowerment—and you think pop music and pop celebrity is a productive forum for these causes, then sure, she’s your girl. She’s the spunky confidant seeking a “sentimental man or woman to pump [her] up,” and she often returns the favor.
Socially, emotionally, even, Lizzo is always doing something affirmative with her platform. But musically, on Special, she’s only ever on the verge of doing something interesting with her voice. On the lovesick ultimatum “Break Up Twice,” she summons so many of her forebears simultaneously—Lauryn Hill (whom Lizzo samples for the chorus), Missy Elliott, Truth Hurts, Jazmine Sullivan—but still she shows her own nerve. “Who gon’ put up with your Gemini shit like I do?” she sings. This and “Naked” are the closest Special comes to sounding full-throated and powerful. But the rest of the album is easygoing pop with a conscientious gloss.
This is all for better or for worse. Special is a pleasant mess of contradictions and compromises. It’s pop, but with an uncommonly powerful vocalist at the helm. It’s funk, but with the funk scrubbed off. This is the common and, arguably, hopeless complaint about so much post-Bruno dance music: funk and pop are just too dramatically opposed to one another to share a song without embarrassing one element, if not both, at least somewhat. “About Damn Time” isn’t a bad song, but it is corny. Lizzo knows, I’m sure, but Lizzo persists, also knowing she’s unbeatable and indefatigable as a performer.
So we’re left with Special, a fine pop album with bouncy beats, cheerful hooks, and a soothing figure at center stage, sprinkling some minor political significance over the songs and interviews, as a treat. She’s Chance, redeemed. She’s a great performer doing slight work. She’s a Black female rapper making pop music her plaything, and this is more impressive and interesting than it sometimes sounds.