With Cuz I Love You, Lizzo experienced the kind of award-winning, platinum-selling, culturally omnipresent success that could make artists wither in the spotlight, uncertain of their next move. Fortunately, that's not the case on Special. Having finally won the fans she richly deserved before her breakthrough album, she trusts them to follow her as she steps up to fame's demands by being even more real. As she was making her name, the unstoppable swagger of hits like "Juice" was necessary, but on Special she reveals she doesn't have it all figured out in the wake of her incredible success. For every song like "About Damn Time," a perfectly constructed piece of celebratory disco-pop that's classic Lizzo, there's another where she confesses that even she can't always be that confident. Special's songs are tempered with quirks and flaws, and even when they sound like they're shouting from the rooftops, Lizzo's vulnerabilities bring her listeners closer. There's an undercurrent of melancholy on the driving opener "The Sign," hinting that the twerking and smoothies she's been using for self-care might not be enough to deal with the same old heartache; on "2 Be Loved (Am I Ready)," she can't trust the process, singing "I did the work/It didn't work" before huge '80s synths almost drown out her self-doubt. Prior to Special's release, Lizzo described it as a love album in the most encompassing sense of the word, but she saves most of her affection for her friends, whom she celebrates on "Birthday Girl" and "I Love You Bitch," and the LGBTQ+ community, for whom she provides a safe space on "Everybody's Gay," which evokes the Mary Jane Girls in its smoothly funky moves. When it comes to loving herself or being able to love someone else, however, things get more complicated, and these conflicts make for some of Special's standout songs. On the soulful title track, she's unflinchingly honest about her place in the world as someone who's "Black and heavy" as well as a celebrity whose words and actions are frequently taken out of context. "Naked" -- one of the few times on the album where she reaches out to someone -- hides one of the record's most poignant lyrics in its sultriness: "I wish we could live without no body expectations." Lizzo matches Special's soul-baring with adventurous musical choices, adding shades of vintage folk and psychedelic soul to the all-or-nothing ballad "If You Love Me" and flexing her songwriting chops on "Coldplay," a jazzy, stream-of-consciousness look at why intimacy is hard for her that provides a welcome counterpoint to the big hooks and catchphrases in the making elsewhere on the album (like calling herself a "C-E-ho" on the Beastie Boys-sampling "Grrrls"). Far from a rehash of Cuz I Love You, Special finds Lizzo revealing new layers to the genuine songwriting and generous spirit that has defined her music since the beginning.
by Heather Phares