Lizzo: Cuz I Love You review – body-positive pop with its foot on the gas

(Nice Life/Atlantic)
Lizzo’s exhausting third album ramps up the drama to 11 with dense arrangements, squealing guitars and climactic vocals

There are albums that slowly, subtly unfold before the listener’s ears, only gradually revealing their full breadth and depth over time. And then there are albums that pretty much start as they mean to go on, a category into which you can firmly place Lizzo’s major-label debut. The first thing the listener hears on Cuz I Love You is the singer/rapper’s voice delivering the title in full-tilt testifying mode, an impassioned, gasping, raw-throated wail. It feels as if it should be emanating from a vocalist who has dropped to their knees with their head thrown back and their hands clenched into fists, the better to highlight that this is the absolute climax of their performance. It’s followed by a crashing orchestral sweep that’s equal parts grandiose 60s soul ballad and Count Dracula on the pipe organ. Much as it sounds like the music you hear immediately before the curtain falls, it turns out merely to be the prelude: the whole song proceeds along much the same lines, a pastiche of old-fashioned southern soul at its most intense, decorated with melodramatic pauses and widdly-woo guitars and a vocal that declares its love in a manner so frenzied, you feel slightly fearful for the object of her affections.

It sets the tone for the entire album, which shifts very deftly in style from synthy early 80s post-disco pop on Juice, to the Prince-ly funk rock of Cry Baby to the distorted blues influence that runs through Heaven Help Me, but seems to have been recorded with everything turned up to 11. The arrangements are dense, the choruses invariably come bolstered either by a choir or voices multi-tracked until they sound like a choir; the guitars squeal and Lizzo’s vocals proceed at a bug-eyed level of intensity.

It’s certainly one way of getting yourself noticed as a mainstream star, something Lizzo has been inching towards since the release of her 2013 debut Lizzobangers. Six years ago, she seemed like a left-field, even marginal figure. A Houston-born, Minneapolis-based rapper who could also sing and play classical flute, her lyrics mixed absurd humour with the kind of topics that would soon be termed “woke”: body-image, self-love, feminism, black empowerment. She was clearly capable of making tracks that sounded like pop smashes, not least the insistent Batches and Cookies, but for the moment, she seemed more beloved of indie musicians than the charts. Lizzobangers was co-produced by Ryan Olsen of Marijuana Deathsquads and Gayngs; she subsequently toured supporting Sleater-Kinney. Since then, however, the pop world has come round to Lizzo’s way of thinking: as she has noted, body positivity and self-care are currently “buzzing”. She now finds herself on the cover of fashion magazines and feted as a role model in gushing profile pieces. If Juice was only a minor hit when released as a single, it certainly wasn’t down to lack of exposure: it seemed to be on Radio 1 every 10 minutes.

Lizzo: Juice – video

You can see how Cuz I Love You’s more-is-more sonic approach fits with her bold public image and shows off her vocal prowess, which is several cuts above that of your average Auto-Tuned singer-rapper. In small doses, it’s incredibly powerful. The churning bass line and mass of distorted vocals on Like a Girl provide a suitably expansive backdrop for her sharp, witty lyrics – “the only exes I care about are in my chromosomes” – while Lingerie explodes into squalling, thrilling life from a muted, swampy blues-rock opening. But wadded tightly together, the tracks frequently segueing into each other, the effect can feel a little exhausting. Tempo might well be the album’s highlight, partly because it’s an all-too-rare pleasure to hear the voice of guest star Missy Elliott nearly 15 years after she last released an album, partly because there’s a pleasing hint of baton-passing about her appearance (people have been comparing Lizzo to Missy since she first emerged) but mostly because Missy brings with her some of the sparse, haunting atmosphere of her greatest singles. Her presence prompts everyone else involved in Cuz I Love You’s making to calm down slightly, to considerable effect.

Cuz I Love You could do with more moments like that. Lizzo has something to say, and a smart way of saying it – “never tell me to exercise,” she cautions on Soul Mate, “you know we get extra fries” – but the potency of what’s here would seem more potent still if it had been allowed a little room to breathe, a touch of the light and shade found on Lizzobangers or its 2015 successor Big GRRRL Small World. Instead, Cuz I Love You keeps its foot pressed down hard on the accelerator for half an hour in an attempt to ram-raid the charts. It’s hard not to hope it’s a success – the world could do with more pop stars like Lizzo – and hard not to hope that next time, she occasionally changes gear.

This week Alexis listened to

Marie Davidson: Work It (Soulwax mix)
Icily commanding vocal, icily industrial synths: a killer remix of the standout from Davidson’s Working Class Woman album.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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