Fall Arts Preview

The Year of Lizzo took its time getting here

Lizzo performed on NBC’s “Today” show Aug. 23, 2019.
Lizzo performed on NBC’s “Today” show Aug. 23, 2019.Greg Allen/Invision/AP/file/Invision/AP

It’s safe to say that Lizzo is one of 2019’s defining pop artists. Her album “Cuz I Love You” is entrenched in the Billboard 200 chart’s upper reaches; her spring tour, with its torrid live shows, was so successful that she’s embarking on a second round, in bigger venues (like this month at Boston’s Agganis Arena); her awards-show performances, with their bridal getups and inflatable posteriors, have brought her live show to millions of viewers at home.

But since her first appearances around Minneapolis with her group The Chalice, Lizzo has occupied a singular place in pop — it’s just that the rest of America is catching on now. Her 2013 debut, “Lizzobangers,” gave a name to the style of her songs, which optimized a blend of Houston hip-hop, Detroit soul, Minneapolis funk, and her own outsize personality. That approach galvanizes her music; take her singles, like the jittery “Phone,” the ebulliently supportive “Good as Hell,” and the giddy “Boys,” all of which are stylistically divergent yet undeniably the product of Lizzo’s brain.


Lizzo has also been one of the most enthralling live performers of recent years, lighting up festivals like Boston Calling’s 2016 installment with cardio-workout-level dancing and leading the equivalent of love-ins on her own tours. After a raucous, dance-filled House of Blues performance in May — one that was punctuated by the rapper-singer opening up about her own self-esteem struggles — she challenged the audience: “If you can love me, you can love yourself,” she said. In a time of listeners pledging near-religious fealty to pop stars, it was a powerful message, and one that makes her current success all the more sweet.

Yet her path to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — a feat she achieved with her 2017 barnburner “Truth Hurts” earlier this month — shows how unpredictable pop music can be in 2019. “Cuz I Love You,” Lizzo’s third album, came out in April, preceded by the sheeny “Juice,” a throwback to the shoulder-padded heyday of Klymaxx and S.O.S. Band that puts Lizzo’s rhyming skills and acerbic higher register on full display. Beloved by critics and accompanied by tons of glowing press as well as a winking video, “Juice” remains a great introduction to Lizzo’s aesthetic. The rest of the album does too, really, balancing acerbic wit with open-hearted vulnerability and backing it up with high-caliber soul-pop. It kicks off with the bring-down-the-house title track before swaggering through the self-loving “Soulmate,” the trap-church statement of purpose “Heaven Help Me,” and the Missy Elliott-assisted “Tempo,” the latter of which frames the two women’s boasts in refracted synths and urgent air horns.


But what sent Lizzo to the top of this year’s charts wasn’t a song from “Love” — it was “Truth Hurts,” a sung-rapped poison-pen letter to a man who did her wrong. The sparsely arranged track is full of great one-liners, but the opening verse hit a particular nerve: “I just took a DNA test, turns out/ I’m a hundred percent that bitch,” she taunts over a rolling piano. It sets the table for what’s about to come next in the song, but it also works very well on its own, as users of the video-sharing app TikTok proved in the weeks before “Love” came out. Users would swab their mouths, then transform into ogres, Britney Spears, and famous TikTok users — or even their best versions of themselves — while lip-syncing along with the opening line.


The track — which was also used in the Netflix lady-flick “Someone Great” — wasn’t initially on “Love,” but it clearly struck a nerve. “Y’all like the song, but show me how much you like the song so I can get that coin,” Lizzo said in an April clip compiling some TikTok standouts. In May, “Truth” was appended to the album’s deluxe edition; months later, and shortly after paparazzi had captured Beyoncé bouncing along with Lizzo’s performance at the Made in America festival, the song hit No. 1.

Musically, Lizzo’s propulsive soul-pop is a much-needed antidote to the smoothed-out bummers offered by far too many DJ duos and solo singers; message-wise, her pushing for sometimes-brutal honesty, tender self-compassion, and shouting feelings up to the rafters provides an antidote to Instagram-filtered perfection. Lizzo has been a megastar-in-waiting for a while now, and to see (and hear!) her thriving in a year that’s been defined by bleakness is one of this decade’s most delightful pop pleasures.


At Agganis Arena, Boston, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. Tickets $29.50 and up, 800-745-3000, www.agganisarena.com

Maura Johnston can be reached at maura@maura.com.