I get the feeling, looking at Lizzo‘s career arc, that her story could have been a lot different.
And to explain this, you need to go back to her debut project in 2013 Lizzobangers – and if you’re familiar at all with her larger discography, this project will surprise you in sounding very little like her major label work. For one it’s a lot more hip-hop, produced mostly by Lazerbeak of Doomtree – which makes sense because she had moved from Houston to Minneapolis and you can tell how her sound was influenced by the tropes and genre-blending that came out of that. Which was awesome, I’ve always been a huge fan of that sound, and while she took steps towards thicker indie R&B atmospherics on her 2015 follow-up, it’s a tone and style of hip-hop that I’d love to see get more traction… but that was quick to evaporate by the time she signed to Atlantic, mostly because executives probably saw her huge personality and great singing voice and knew she’d probably have a bunch of crossover appeal.
So Lazerbeak is gone and replaced by Ricky Reed, Oak, and X Ambassadors – and look, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but when I listened to her EP Coconut Oil and then saw a tweet from a fellow critic suggesting Lizzo might be falling in the line of Bruno Mars… look, it’s an easy and unfortunate comparison to make. But there’s truth in it: a great personality who ultimately is more palatable to a larger audience making pastiches of sounds and styles that are not uniquely hers alone, only redeemed by the fact that she’s a legitimately great talent behind the microphone – certainly better than when Ricky Reed tried a similar schtick with Meghan Trainor nearly five years ago! But suffice to say my expectations for Cuz I Love You were considerably diminished going in, but this could still be a good album, right?
Well, if I’m being honest… not really. And let met clarify that my opinion wouldn’t be all that different if I had only ever heard this album and didn’t know her history – that’s where the disappointment comes in on my front, but the album’s quality one way or another is its own thing. And the unfortunate part of this conversation is that Cuz I Love You is mixed at best – because while Lizzo is the sort of personality that’ll hurl this project over the finish line, start going even a little deeper and it comes apart fast.
And look, you can tell there are critics who are trying to give this album every benefit of the doubt because they like Lizzo’s personality – hell, I like Lizzo’s personality, or at least I thought I did before we got a sanded-down, increasingly cartoonish version of it on this project. Yes, she can sing her ass off with the sort of firepower I’m inclined to respect and like, with a raw exuberance that blows past a lot of her peers right now, and you can tell on some level she’s having a blast making this album. I’ll give her this, in comparison with so much desaturated pop and R&B and trap, Lizzo brings a lot of real personality and charisma to bear – so much so that an already pretty short album feels like an airless rush of adrenaline that desperately needs a moment to take a breath or slow down or modulate. Granted, none of this is helped by the production – a lot more on this in a moment – where it seems everyone forgot how to layer or track a mix for someone with a huge voice, but Lizzo seemed at least willing to step back and show more sides and emotional dimension on previous projects, or at the very least deliver rap flows with some complexity! Again, maybe it was a fool’s hope to expect the flair and punch that she had on Lizzobangers and I know that this project is trying to emphasize her singing more, but even many the cadences and structure are gone in favor of basic pop rap that wouldn’t be out of place on a Meghan Trainor album – and given this is the streaming chart era where trap flows are everywhere, I have no idea why her team was encouraging her to not outrap Gucci Mane, which I know she can!
But again, Lizzo is a real talent with the sort of charisma and presence Meghan Trainor never had across multiple genres – so it’s a goddamn shame she’s stuck with uneven production that can slip to Trainor’s level way more often than it should. And amazingly it’s not Ricky Reed who is primarily responsible for this: the broad 80s funk touches and echoing guitars might remind me more of Cameo than Prince, especially with Lizzo’s delivery, but songs like ‘Juice’ and ‘Cry Baby’ have a flair and colour that can match her personality, and the closer ‘Lingerie’ is a welcome breather, even if it does sound like the guitar tones are being suffocated. The problem is that Reed is not the only producer on this project, and for most of it we’re stuck with either Oak or X Ambassadors, and all of them have a really bad habit of leaving Lizzo’s voice to peak in the mix or not give her the space she needs. So let’s start with X Ambassadors, and while being Lizzo’s backing band is about the first time they’ve ever been interesting, the missteps are still glaring. Why is the drum fidelity so flat leaving the percussion with no body, why are so many of the horns crushed into weirdly scuzzy electric guitars, and with the title track, why is the main melodic motif going into a minor key, making it sound less like Lizzo’s in pain and more like her lover is going to be killed in slow motion? Why do the pianos sound so rinky-dink against the leaden trap percussion on ‘Heaven Help Me’, and how are the vocals still so sloppily placed? At least ‘Jerome’ plays its lumpy waltz with some humor and traces of soul, which is more than I can say for the majority of what Oak produced, from the buzzed out clusterfuck of ‘Like A Girl’ where the trap groove somehow sounds even worse to the abortive attempts at new jack swing scratching on ‘Soulmate’ and ‘Exactly How I Feel’ to whatever the hell happened to the guitars on ‘Better In Color’. I’m sadly reminded of a lot of what happened to Kelly Clarkson’s last album Meaning Of Life, where the percussion mixing emphasizes clatter spiking off the 808s, and even if Lizzo’s vocals are mixed badly, they’re a dominant element stuck competing with it, which leaves any tune to die in the background. Hell, even a song like ‘Tempo’ that just has to be a trap banger and has the built-in charisma of Missy Elliott then has a melodic loop that’s just falling over itself and keeps showing synth and guitar melodies that sound more inviting than anything else happening here. And that’s before they try to mix Lizzo’s flute into the outro – not a bad idea and I honestly wish they could have found more room for it on the album to flesh out the melodies, but it does not blend well here.
Granted, many of the problems Lizzo is facing with production comes with a desire to throw everything at the wall to see what’ll stick, be it soul or funk or the overmixed mess of late 2010s trap pop, with the vocal personality and lyrics being the core that holds it all together… and where this album also kind of lost me. And let me start by saying that I get it: the messages of empowerment and learning how to love oneself have always been a part of Lizzo’s work, and not only are they not made for me, they also probably pick up more resonance for her target audience coming from her than your average pop starlet. But considering how much humor and sheer firepower that Lizzo brings to so many of these songs without stopping to breathe or modulate, it’s hard to not see this as being oversold, or even sliding to the point of parody, especially with the overproduction. Because on the one hand you have cuts like ‘Juice’ that can land with real confidence and groove, or a song like ‘Jerome’ that can play up the hilarious kissoff… but then you get the empowerment songs that are not only overdone in this brand of pop, but can feel painfully shallow when presented this broadly. It’s not like we’re getting anything that transgressive or challenging from the pop feminism of ‘Like A Girl’ or the cupcakKe riff we get on ‘Better In Color’, and for as much as ‘Soulmate’ plays up the self-love and how she’s comfortable being alone, a lot of the writing slips towards cliches and unconvincing platitudes – again, I’ve heard similar sentiments and framing on Meghan Trainor songs! And while Lizzo does express them better, what gets strange is that given how much she emphasizes letting all her emotions out, show every dimension of her personality, being comfortable laughing and crying and questioning and being sexy across ‘Exactly How I Feel’ and ‘Cry Baby’ and ‘Lingerie’ – all good things, I should add – it feels hollow because I’ve heard her earlier albums and I’ve heard the depth and understated moments that this album refuses to show. I dunno, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that there’s more lip service being paid to dimensionality and introspection on this project than it actually coming through, not helped by writing choices that are trying to be quirky and just fall flat in self-satisfaction, mostly on ‘Soulmate’ and that ‘accessorary’ line on ‘Tempo’ and all of Gucci Mane’s verse.
So as a whole… look, I’ll admit going in I had low expectations and that the Lizzo album I’d probably be most excited to hear will probably never come to pass – believe it or not, I have accepted that. But this still should be better than it is, and at the end of the day you wind up with an artist riding a justly deserved hype train on material flimsier than what’s fueled it in the past. And while I absolutely can see and appreciate the appeal – normally my place to say it’s not for me and move on – the production is a sticking point and a consistent enough problem to hold this back to a strong 5/10. Again, I know I’m not making any fans or friends with this – and I am thankful that at least her label’s choice of singles is good – but for Lizzo’s sake going forward, I hope she can more consistently stick the landing.