Listening to Lizzo’s new album, Cuz I Love You, last Friday night, two things quickly occurred to me: (1) I just cannot keep up with this woman’s vocal leaps and (2) at barely over thirty-three minutes, this album was not nearly long enough to satisfy my thirst. About that thirsty second thought, I seriously considered I might be morphing into the emotional bitch from her soundcloud released hit, Bye Bitch. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's back up for a minute.
Confession: I’m hella late to the Lizzo party. The singer, rapper, and flautist has been making subtle moves as a solo artist since late 2013/early 2014, but she didn’t really jump onto my radar until a few months ago. I have a vivid memory of the moment that viral “HAVE U EVER SEEN A BITCH PLAY FLUTE THEN HIT THE SHOOT?” video crossed my twitter feed. The all caps are a necessary part of the tweet, just so you know. Within hours I was searching her name online looking for the “new” album I was sure must have just released. Instead, I found Coconut Oil - her 2016 EP - along with Big GRRRL Small World from 2015 and a handful of older singles.
Bops like Good as Hell, the soul-clapping Worship with that quick-repeating guitar juke, and the titular Coconut Oil with its mix of organ, flute, & electric guitar Black church reverbs had me jumping into every music conversation to declare her acclaim. I was especially quick to chat her up as a budding branch on the Prince family tree. Even before I knew she’d been featured on the Prince/3rdeyegirl album, Plectrumelectrum, I could hear clear echoes of his style in her songs. While I don’t think she's exactly shooting for the comparison, Lizzo harkens my ears to the funk and gospel core of rock-n-roll that based all of The Purple One’s sound and made it classic.
Now that there really is a new album on which to feast, I’ve been more than ready to binge listen. The vampy big-band title track, Cuz I Love You, is also the first song to greet listeners’ ears and I was immediately struck by the powerfully guttural range of Lizzo’s voice blended with unexpected interludes of quirky talk-rap questioning “what the fuck are fuckin feelings, yo?” The biggest question running through my head was who exactly that gut busting voice reminded me of – because I was getting clear echoes, not of Prince, but some other singer at the back of my mind. I spent most of last weekend searching old-school rhythm&blues videos on YouTube until it finally hit me: Those deep breaths and bone-stirring power notes were giving me heavy Etta James/Margie Hendrix vibes!
Think of the intermittent “Baebaayyy’s” in Ray Charles’ hit song Night Time is the Right Time and just try telling me Lizzo doesn’t channel that same energy. Then splice in a dollop of Etta James’ I Just Wanna Make Love to You or It's a Crying Shame for good measure. When you've done that, listen to I'd Rather Go Blind - amp up the base a few notches - and you’ve got the aura of Lizzo's Jerome. But just as I was ready to settle in for a classic rhythm&blues / soul record with hints of off-center hip-hop, my girl went and switched it up on me! Where Cuz I love You channels big-band-energy, tracks like Juice and Better in Color return to the aesthetics of her last album; conjuring big-dick-energy funk and Little Richardesque rock-n-roll on steroids. The Prince vibes make a comeback, too, for Crybaby and the sexy album closer, Lingerie. Speaking of Lingerie, let me be clear that I would gladly throw these see-through panties on stage for either that thriller or the flute solo at the end of Heaven Help Me. Lizzo would drive me to it just as easily as any bathtub-crawling guitar solo or Big Mama Thornton swaggered entreaty to come sit on her knee.
Then there’s the afro-sheen of pop music polish that Lizzo is so good at and which I was actually expecting would take up most of the space on this record. I’m still undecided about their majority status or their listing as purely “fluff” Pop tracks, but Like a Girl, Soulmate, and Exactly How I Feel deliver a sound close enough to those typically airy, feel-good vibes to more than satisfy. Like I said, I don’t think Lizzo is aiming to replicate any one iconic style so much as she’s drawing a through-line of connective tissue from the roots of all those sounds to her own Pot Likka flavor on top.
Several critics seem to disagree with my theories, though. Which is where I begin to take issue with the coverage the album has received so far. Some people have been in their feelings recently about another viral tweet from Lizzo and her comments on music critics who have no direct background in the genre. The thing is, blunt delivery aside, she’s kinda got a point. Cuz I Love You, and by extension Lizzo herself, are getting tons of much deserved popstar acclaim. Every other article on these here interwebs has gone on about how fun, likeable, energetic, and generally body positive her music is – which is great. What I haven’t seen nearly as much of is the serious vocal talent recognition she also merits.
The trouble, I think, is that folks are having a hard time placing her in a single box. But I would argue that's exactly what makes Lizzo a star. If we’ve learned nothing from the musical legacy of that other infamous Melissa - The Elliott, who coincidentally blessed the song Tempo on Lizzo’s album with a guest appearance, we should have learned to never try limiting the range of a woman with potential to bust a hole in the genre. Hell, Beyoncé just told us the world wants Black women to stay in our little boxes where they can underestimate us. What Lizzo's critics don’t seem to understand then, is how much it means to break out of those boxes - or the angst that comes from still being underestimated even after you’ve taken the leap. But have you ever tried explaining the value of Pot Likka to someone who’s not Black or from the south with access to quality Black folks cookin?
Their initial reaction is to ask what it is, with the next question being: why eat the dregs of the pot when I could have the main course? Of course, those of us in-the-know realize that Pot Likka is what makes the main course shine. It's the icing on the cake, that extra treat to elevate all the other dishes. Drizzle it like gravy over your rice or potatoes. Sop it up like butter with your cornbread. Lick your greeeaazy fingers as you dip a dry chicken bone in it, the better to tear off that last piece of cartilage. That, for me, is one Melissa Viviane Jefferson in a nutshell.
Lizzo is not exactly the cornbread of rhythm&blues or soul, though I could easily sop on her voice all day. Nor is she the starchy potatoes of funk, but I'd sure like to drizzle her over it with her range. She's got just a hint of that classic Little Richard/Prince rock-n-roll bite and a whole lot of Hip-hop/Pop swag and sex appeal. She's quite literally the perfect top off to them all. And, if critics were wise, they'd take a second (and a third) listen to her new album, brush up on their music history if not their actual music talents, and then try a little more of that Pot Likka Lizzo.