For Lizzo's major-label debut album, "Cuz I Love You" (Nice Life Recording Company/Atlantic), the Minneapolis rapper/singer/body-positive advocate is in full cry from the get-go. Over 11 songs in 33 minutes, Lizzo rarely lets up, a relentless assault that favors excess verging on camp over subtlety.
In shouting for attention, Lizzo and her producers -- notably Ricky Reed and X Ambassadors -- aim for radio singles rather than cohesive statements. In that sense, Lizzo's earlier work -- particularly her indie breakthrough, "Big Grrrl Small World (2015)" -- more transparently embraced her multi-faceted brilliance. Her brand of "no-genre hip-hop" underlined and highlighted her differences, and led to tours with an eclectic array of admirers, including Sleater-Kinney, Haim and Florence and the Machine, and collaborations with Prince and RuPaul.
Her role model, Missy Elliott, appears on "Tempo," easily the album's quirkiest track. With Elliott rolling her "r's" with relish, Lizzo dips into the playful rhymes with understated cool, an ode to "thick girls" with little patience for slow songs. There's also a flute solo, a throwback to Lizzo's days in the school marching band. This is the kind of audacious charm that made Lizzo so undeniable, the artist who made social-political statements about outsiders that you could dance to.
The rest is relentlessly catchy, if sometimes numbing in its reliance on full-throttle choruses and vamps. And yet ... if you listen attentively, Lizzo's personality slips into these mansion-like arrangements like a burglar. Ultimately, she turns "Cuz I Love You" into something more than the mainstream suck-up it first suggests.
Here's the issue: Lizzo's not just a gifted rapper, she has a powerhouse voice, and this album indisputably affirms that. But her producers ask (Demand? Implore? Persuade?) her to max out as often as possible. In the title song, she roars behind a storm-whipped arrangement that verges on show-tunes camp. "Like a Girl" wedges its feminist celebration into a track that might've fit on the last piece of Katy Perry product. "Juice" aims for a "Miami Vice"-era disco vibe, with Latin percussion and horns.
"Soulmate" leaves room for some quintessential Lizzo asides -- "never tell me to exercise, you know we get extra fries" -- in between the choir-on-steroids hook. Similarly, the over-the-top "Jerome" and "Crybaby" verge on blues parody, and "Heaven Help Me" overheats its gospel vibe.
Somehow, Lizzo rises above the cliches to make herself not only heard, but felt. The wordless vocals in "Jerome" go for broke, even as a multi-tracked Lizzo on backing vocal audibly wheezes. In "Heaven Help Me," someone can be heard sobbing in the background, only to be consoled by a Lizzo flute solo. These are strange, funny moments that resonate in part because they are almost subliminal, little land mines inserted into the most benign settings. They assert that even when encouraged to crank everything up to "11" for the marketplace, Lizzo remains an artist who plays by her own rules.
'CUZ I LOVE YOU'
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