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Album review: Lizzo is a rock star for the modern era

Lizzo. Photo by TNS

A common refrain these days is this idea that “rap is the new rock.” What this means is that there's a widespread perception that rap music is now where all the innovation and excitement is happening. It's the music that has the biggest effect on culture, goes the theory. One look at the lineup of just about any American music festival doesn't dissuade this argument. Anymore, it's pop stars, rappers, pastiche artists — and “influencers” on holiday. The days of gritty rock bands having a vice grip on culture are gone. When the feeble Greta Van Fleet is the great rock ’n’ roll success story of the era, the era is lost.

In any case, it doesn't really matter. Things change. There was no rock in 1950. That's not that long ago. There are lots of healthy people with a lot of life ahead of them who were born around that time. What matters is whether or not there are people out there who can arrange sounds in an invigorating way that speaks to a wide range of people from all cultures. At its best, music speaks to the human experience by transmitting something of a person's soul to the listener. This has been and will always be the case. It's about communication.

Today's preamble is inspired by the new Lizzo album, “Cuz I Love You,” which is not a rock album. But one could be forgiven for being reminded of, say, the savage, hilarious funk-rock of the underloved Betty Davis during the runtime of the song “Crybaby,” which is stuffed with insistent snare drums and bendy guitar riffs and is topped by the gutsy, personality-drenched vocals of the Minneapolis-based Lizzo, vocals that reveal a musician with previously-untold skills as a singer who rocks better than most newer rock bands. Rock and roll is about using one's voice and body to say things and communicate feelings that normal language or nice music can't impart, and, by that metric, Lizzo rocks.

It seemed like Lizzo was a rapper not that long ago — or, at least, that was how she was promoted. But the truth is, she's also a riveting singer, with plenty of presence and range. But the key to her identity is that she kind of flits in and out of different moods as they suit her.

“Cuz I Love You” starts with the title track, a pretty much straight-up 6/8 soul ballad that starts with the hook (which is always a nice trick to pull). The thing that makes it remarkable, though, is the way Lizzo's personality shines through. Here, she's a for-real singer but with plenty of self-awareness and humor on display. (It makes sense that she has toured with Har Mar Superstar in the past — this song could fit on any of his albums.) There are times, in fact, where you can kinda hear her smiling while she's singing. Yeah, the verses are rapped, but the knockout punch comes when she starts wailing, her voice breaking into a forceful cry at points. It's impressive stuff. She's raw and emotional but also strong and funny. She contains multitudes.

“Juice” is easily a contender for one of the year's best singles, as it sounds like a fantastic Gnarls Barkley song from when that duo sounded like the future of something. Like that group's “Crazy,” “Juice” is going to sound fantastic coming out of car windows all summer long, and that's no small achievement.

There's much more that could be said about “Cuz I Love You,” but the fact is that a lot has already been parsed in the media about the album's production team or personal politics or what have you. The bottom line, though, should be that Lizzo is a rock star in the classic sense, and as long as people like her are out there tearing out their hearts and throats to connect with their audience, rock ’n’ roll will never die.

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