Lizzo recently lashed out after Pitchfork gave her widely praised album Cuz I Love You a mediocre review, and it sparked discussion on the relationship between artist and critic.
Lizzo has made her name for by loving herself and forcing everyone else to follow suit. Her message is one of aggressive self-empowerment, and it has given voice to many people who never see themselves represented in mainstream pop culture. She’s incessantly positive about her size, gender, and race because she exists in an industry and world that proves she must be. She’s is setting a lot of firsts, and in order to normalize the things she wants to normalize, she must be relentless.
Her new album, Cuz I Love You, was released on April 19, and the critical and fan reviews have been almost entirely positive. Fans on Twitter called it the album of the summer, and critics claim it’s a breath of fresh air that sidesteps many industry standards to make an album that truly feels new. April 19 was the Lizzo show on Twitter, and the album debuted at number six on the Billboard 200, even jumping to number one on iTunes' album chart above Beyonce’s Homecoming.
However, Pitchfork gave the album a 6.5, claiming the album falls short musically, with “overwrought production, awkward turns of phrase, and ham-handed rapping.” Reviewer Rawiya Kameir goes on to say, “The opening lines of ‘Like A Girl’ have the energy of an ‘SNL’ sketch.” The review reduces the album to a slightly better major-label album with little originality, and it finds the weak spots in the genre crossovers the album attempts.
Lizzo almost immediately took to Twitter to say “PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DON’T MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED.” She followed up and backtracked with a series of tweets, one which invited music critics to come to the studio so that they might understand the music-making process in a deeper way, and she might understand the reviewing process in a deeper way. She’s since deleted the tweets, leaving only one that says, “Gonna take my temper off the internet.”
I understand Lizzo’s frustration with the Pitchfork review. The review focuses heavily on the “empowerment-core” aspect of Lizzo’s music and ends, “The sound might disappoint, but there will be people moved to transformations of their own thanks to her songs. And that’s important, too.” This is a more than fair assessment to assign art that is working to empower, but it’s an unfair assessment of Lizzo’s album.
Lizzo did not make a rap album, an R&B album, or a pop album. She made a Lizzo album, which falls somewhere in the middle of those. The album is musical and puts her soulful, R&B voice to use in pop songs and slow jams, rapping and fluting along the way to prove her range. The album opens with “Cuz I Love You,” and the horns triumphantly back her voice, leaving the listener immediately at her feet in worship. The album has perfect summer bops like “Like A Girl,” “Soulmate,” and “Juice” which might be a bit didactic in their self-love positivity, but they are pop songs. Their lyrics are quintessential to Lizzo’s entire message and is a huge reason she’s made her way to the forefront of pop culture.
She doesn’t just give us summer bops, though. “Jerome” is a soulful ode to unrequited, complicated ‘situationships’ that’s sultry and fierce with real anger behind it. “Lingerie” is a sexy slow jam that shows a side of Lizzo we haven’t seen before where she’s getting truly intimate on the track. “Tempo” is the real power track, opening with a sexy guitar riff, then moving into a fun, club beat that Lizzo says is for shaking ass. Any song that features Missy Elliot is almost guaranteed to be a banger, but this is still Lizzo’s song. You hear Misdemeanor’s influence, but it’s Lizzo’s track, and she brings her signature flute in at the end to remind us of that. There isn’t one type of song on the album, and it builds and falls thoughtfully.
While Lizzo’s frustration is understandable, the expectation that critics should be practicing artists in the field they’re reviewing is unrealistic and absurd. Transparency between music-making and music-receiving is great, and the more we understand about the art we’re consuming is great in general. But if the music cannot be received properly unless the listener knows how it was made, the music is failing. The art should be able to stand on its own, separated from artists’ intention and artists’ efforts. The desire to explain intention behind art is fascinating, and adds another layer to interpretation, but that interpretation is only supplemental and cannot be a fundamental component of how the art is received. People will come to work as they come to it, and there’s nothing we can do about how it’s received once it’s in the world.
The tweet came as a surprise because Lizzo is constantly uplifting and positive, and because of the album’s near-universal praise before that. Fans were confused both by the review and her response to it. It comes as a strange blip, but she survived it by gracefully backing away from the stance and acknowledged that Twitter isn’t the place to have this discourse.
That said, Twitter critics were right. Lizzo still made the album of the summer, and her star power is only on the ascent.
Our review of Lizzo's set at Voodoo 2018 in New Orleans